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Tove Jansson’s Weather Vane

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In the current issue of Tin House, I have an essay on Finnish author Tove Jansson. Jansson, probably best known for her children’s book characters The Moomins, also wrote books for adults. I had finally come across them early last year.

After reading Jansson’s novels, I was struck by her strong tone: a dark humor that appears to, at once, both celebrate and mock humanity. As I looked closer, I found that weather played a major role in the stories, determining where the characters lived, how they got on with their day-to-day, and even the personalities they developed.

Below is a short excerpt from the essay in the Winter Reading issue. Also in the issue is fiction from Fiona Maazel and Shirley Jackson; poetry from Meghan O’Rourke, Josh Bell, and Mark Z. Danielewski; an interview with author Robert Stone; and other reviews from Dani Shapiro and Tobias Carroll. Head out to your local bookstore today or order online at Tin House.

I came to Tove Jansson’s work late in life and in a backward fashion. Most people familiar with the Finnish author and illustrator know her as the creator of the Moomins, a family of hippopotamus-like creatures first introduced in a children’s book series in 1945 and then adapted into a comic strip. The tales of the Moomins and their fantastical journeys through Moominvalley are something of a cult classic and I’m sad to have missed them in my youth.

Lesser championed are her novels for adult readers, which do not feature fantastical creatures but, instead, follow the lives of very real humans. After spotting Jansson’s 1972 novel, The Summer Book, on display at a local bookstore–a slim book with a muted, pastel cover, and silhouette of an island in the center–I decided to give this author I’d never heard of a shot. It was only later, through a Google search, that I learned of her earlier work.

The opening chapters have a flash fiction feel–they are short, choppy, and do not appear to be linear. But as you continue to read, you realize they’re linked vignettes of life on an isolated island, the story of a cheeky grandmother and her precocious granddaughter, Sophia. (The young girl’s mother dead and the father, inexplicably, relegated to the background). The two, each the other’s primary companion, while away the hours amid the fauna and marshes of their seasonal home, moving between simple conversation and that which delves deeper:

The sun had climbed higher. The whole island, and the sea were glistening. The air seemed very
light.

“I can dive,” Sophia said. “Do you know what it feels like when you dive?”

“Of course I do,” her grandmother said. “You let go of everything and get ready to just dive. You can feel the seaweed against your legs. It’s brown, and the water’s clear, lighter toward the top, with lots of bubbles. And you glide. You hold your breath and glide and turn and come up, let yourself rise and breathe out. And then you float. Just float.”

Written by Gabrielle

January 7, 2014 at 7:12 am

Write it Like Tin House

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Every year Tin House, a literary journal and independent publishing house, coordinates a Summer Writer’s Workshop, a “weeklong intensive of workshops, seminars, panels, and readings.” Together with today’s most respected American authors of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, Tin House editors teach a small group the ins and outs of writing and publishing.

This year’s instructors include Steve Almond, Karen Russell, Jim Shepard, Dana Spiotta, Jess Walter, Cheryl Strayed and D.A. Powell–a dream lineup if you love independent presses and literary imprints.

The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House is a collection that stems from these yearly meetings; essays on character development, pace, editing, and other elements of storytelling offer those who can’t attend a glimpse inside the classroom walls.

Steve Almond explains good and bad sex writing; Kate Bernheimer discusses the four elements of fairy tales and “the reductive spectrum of mainstream and avant-garde writing;” Dorothy Allison describes “place” as it relates to “All the stuff you’ve got that you don’t see;” and Chris Offutt talks about revising, a skill that “requires a cruel and ruthless objectivity” and, to him, is akin to performing “surgery on yourself without anesthesia.”

Instead of a “how-to” guide, The Writer’s Notebook is as Lee Montgomery, Associate Publisher and Editorial Director of Tin House Books and Executive Editor of the magazine, describes it in her introduction: “like intimate conversations, like a notebook.” She further explains:

I suppose there are those who find prescriptive advice about writing helpful, writers who can look at a project, identify a structure, use an outline, and get to writing One, two, threepoof! But I cannot imagine a world where this is true, a world where one creates great characters in five steps, a world in which one pops books out like laying eggs. In my world, writing is difficult and short cuts are few. The only real way to learn how to do it is to read the work of authors who write well and to, well, write–a lot. Along the way, of course, it is always helpful–and interesting–to talk or listen to writers discuss their process and the work of other writers.

In his essay, “The Telling that Shows,” Peter Rock says:

I very rarely understand talking about writing or writing about writing as discourses that intersect with writing itself. I don’t believe that wisdom can be dispensed to writers in this way. How lovely if it were so, and how boring. Instead, I’m always hoping to provoke, to let writers weigh my assertions or learn from my mistakes.

It’s this philosophy–or honesty–that sets The Writer’s Notebook apart from all others on the writing reference shelf. Here are a few excerpts that resonated with me.

Rick Bass, “When to Keep it Simple”

In “When to Keep it Simple,” Rick Bass explains what to do “when you get too wrapped up in a lofty thought and you can’t quite make the ends of a sentence or paragraph hook back up”.

Try cleaning up the words and diction first … and if that doesn’t work, then begin breaking apart the truths, or purported truths, which are probably shrouded in windiness … Say it straight … as if in conversation … Lay that much-simpler and less-ambitious sentence down like a tiny placeholder.

Susan Bell, “Revisioning the Great Gatsby”

Susan Bell’s essay, “Revisioning the Great Gatsby,” looks at the relationship between author and editor. While writing “The Artful Edit,” Bell read the biography of legendary editor Max Perkins, the man who worked with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tom Wolfe. She also reread The Great Gatsby, this time as a “tour de force of revision.”

She starts off, “Gatsby is what Michael Ondaatje called ‘that seemingly uncrossable gulf between an early draft of a book … and a finished product’–in other words, editing.”

The writer had gone far enough on his own with Gatsby and was ready for the latest editorial push–one he freely admitted he was incapable of envisioning alone … It helped to have an editor as astute and courtly as Perkins and who knew how to balance general commentary with specific suggestions. …

Many consider editing as either the correction of punctuation (copyediting) or the overhaul of a book such as Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel. The editing of The Great Gatsby sits between these extremes–a testimony to a writer’s discipline to edit himself and his wisdom to let himself be edited by someone worthy: that is how he crossed the gulf.

Lucy Corin,“Material”

Generally, we are taught to value content over form, to have something to say and then “find a form for it” as if one part of what we produce is our stuff and the other is a suitcase we bought to put the stuff in. You find the form to “suit” your content, your material. This is not an unhelpful way to think about things, but it is not the only way.

Jim Krusoe, “Le Mot Incorrect”

According to Wikipedia, Gustave Flaubert “believed in, and pursued, the principle of finding ‘le mot juste’ (‘the right word’), which he considered the key [to achieving] quality in literary art.”

While Krusoe “understand[s] the great magnetism of ‘le mot juste,’” he says that there are advantages to using the wrong word:

Wrong words help us stray off the path, not by producing a new path, but by throwing us into the thicket … in writing, correctness not only stops the conversation between the writer and the reader, it also stops it between the writer and her or himself. To have no questions is to cease to explore. A poor piece with all the right words has nowhere to turn. Wrong words, however, put us into a different relationship with our sentences and our work.

Margot Livesey, “Shakespeare for Writers”

A more straightforward lesson to be learned from Shakespeare’s plots is the virtue of having subplots … a successful subplot is one that is interesting and compelling in its own right, resonates with the main plot appropriately, and intersects with it at the perfect moment.

I fear I can no longer avoid the most obvious and the most impossible lesson we can learn from Shakespeare: namely, what can be accomplished by the magnificent, melodious, rigorous, energetic, boisterous, vivid, inventive use of language.

The notion of a painter who isn’t interested in paint is baffling, but many writers (I exclude poets) don’t actually seem that interested in language. They are convinced that the interest of their work lies in characterization, plot, and theme. But the plays I’m discussing have survived, in large measure, due to the language Shakespeare invented and put in the mouths of his characters.

The Writer’s Notebook II is out this month and Tin House will be accepting applications for their 2013 workshop starting January 1st.

::[Links]::
Buy The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House
Buy The Writer’s Notebook II: Craft Essays from Tin House
Apply for the 2013 Workshop (applications accepted starting January 1, 2013)
Tin House Podcast: Listen to authors discuss writing
Tin House website

Written by Gabrielle

November 6, 2012 at 6:07 am

New in Paperback for November

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November is upon us and the paperback releases are looking good. This month, keep your eye out for this excellent crop of new books—mostly originals.

The Ballonist by MacDonald Harris with an introduction from Philip Pullman
As in the best of Jules Verne or Albert Sanchez Pinol, “The Balloonist” is a gripping and surreal yarn, chilling and comic by turn, that brilliantly reinvents the Arctic adventure.

It is July 1897, at the northernmost reach of the inhabited world. A Swedish scientist, an American journalist, and a young, French-speaking adventurer climb into a wicker gondola suspended beneath a huge, red-and-white balloon. The ropes are cut, the balloon rises, and the three begin their voyage: an attempt to become the first people to set foot on the North Pole, and return, borne on the wind. Philip Pullman says in his foreword: “Once I open any of MacDonald Harris’s novels I find it almost impossible not to turn and read on, so delightful is the sensation of a sharp intelligence at work.

Kafka in Love by Jacqueline Raoul-Duval
Kafka was an attractive, slender, and elegant man–something of a dandy, who captivated his friends and knew how to charm women. He seemed to have had four important love affairs: Felice, Julie, Milena, and Dora. All of them lived far away, in Berlin or Vienna, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons that he loved them: he chose long-distance relationships so he could have the pleasure of writing to them, without the burden of having to live with them. He was engaged to all four women, and four times he avoided marriage. At the end of each love affair, he threw himself into his writing and produced some of his most famous novels: Amerika, The Trial, and The Castle.

In this charming book, author Jacqueline Raoul-Duval follows the paper trail of Kafka’s ardor. She uses his voice in her own writing, and a third of the book is pulled from Kafka’s journals. It is the perfect introduction to this giant of world literature, and captures his life and romances in a style worthy of his own.

Granta: The Best Young Brazilian Novelists edited by John Freeman
Since Granta’s inaugural list of the Best of Young British Novelists in 1983 – featuring Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes – the Best of Young issues have been some of the magazine’s most influential and best-selling. In 2010, Granta looked beyond the English-speaking world with Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists.

Now, in an issue fully translated in partnership with Granta em Português, the magazine celebrates emerging talent from Brazil, many translated into English for the first time. Authors include Cristhiano Aguiar, Vanessa Barbara, Carol Bensimon, Javier Arancibia Contreras, J.P. Cuenca, Miguel del Castillo, Laura Erber, Emilio Fraia, Julian Fuks, Daniel Galera, Luisa Geisler, Vinicius Jatoba, Michel Laub, Tatiana Salem Levy, Ricardo Lisias, Chico Mattoso, Antonio Prata, Carola Saavendra, Leandro Sarmatz, and Antonio Xerxenesky.

Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin
Day after day the Russian asylum-seekers sit across from the interpreter and Peter—the Swiss officers who guard the gates to paradise—and tell of the atrocities they’ve suffered, or that they’ve invented, or heard from someone else. These stories of escape, war, and violence intermingle with the interpreter’s own reading: a his­tory of an ancient Persian war; letters sent to his son “Nebuchadnezzasaurus,” ruler of a distant, imaginary childhood empire; and the diaries of a Russian singer who lived through Russia’s wars and revolutions in the early part of the twentieth century, and eventually saw the Soviet Union’s dissolution.

Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair is an instant classic of Russian literature. It bravely takes on the eternal questions—of truth and fiction, of time and timeless­ness, of love and war, of Death and the Word—and is a movingly luminescent expression of the pain of life and its uncountable joys.

Hush Hush: Stories by Steven Barthelme
If you’re up $16,000 at the casino and missing dinner with the woman you love, how do you find the strength to drive away? If you give up your career and your beautiful wife and find yourself drinking vodka and fixing cars for a living, is that necessarily a step down? In Hush Hush, Steven Barthelme gives us a simultaneously twisted, heartbreaking, and hilarious account of learning to quit when you’re ahead.

The collection, which includes the Pushcart Prize-winning “Claire,” exposes the surprising dignity in lying on your belly in the pouring rain, in ringing your ex-girlfriend’s doorbell at 4 A.M., in sleeping with your dead wife’s best friend. Co-author with his brother Frederick of the brilliant and devastating casino memoir, Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss, Steven Barthelme seems to cast an eye at his own history and the characters he’s known. These are men and women who are down — but stirringly, not quite out. An unmissable, arresting book from one of the most seminal short story writers of the last twenty years.

The Other Side of the World by Jay Neugeboren
Charlie Eisner is a journeyman whose friend Nick convinces him to move to Singapore, where he falls in love with the vibrant and endangered world of nearby Borneo. One night, at a party in Nick’s Singapore apartment, Nick dies mysteriously, prompting Charlie to return to New England, where he discovers that Seana O’Sullivan has moved in with his father, Max, a retired professor with a beguiling and antic disposition. Seana, one of his father’s former students, is a wildly successful and provocative writer who is equally wild and provocative in life. Together, she and Charlie set out on a road trip, first to pay respects to Nick’s parents, and then on a journey where “weird things happen if you make room for them.”

From the forests of Borneo to the mean streets of Brooklyn and the haunting towns of coastal Maine, The Other Side of the World is a grand, episodic novel and yet another virtuoso performance by one of America’s most revered living writers.

The Writer’s Notebook II: Craft Essays from Tin House with an introduction from Francine Prose
The Writer’s Notebook II continues in the tradition of The Writer’s Notebook, featuring essays based on craft seminars from the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop, as well as a variety of craft essays from Tin House magazine contributors and Tin House Books authors. The collection includes essays that not only examine important craft aspects such as humor, suspense, and research but that also explore creating fractured and nonrealist narratives and the role of dream in fiction. An engaging and enlightening read, The Writer’s Notebook II is both a toolkit and an inspiration for any writer.

Moranthology by Caitlin Moran
The follow-up to Caitlin Moran’s breakout hit, How to Be a Woman–A hilarious collection of award-winning columns, available to American readers for the first time ever.

Possibly the only drawback to the bestselling How to Be a Woman was that its author, Caitlin Moran, was limited to pretty much one subject: being a woman. Moranthology is proof that Caitlin can actually be “quite chatty” about many other things, including cultural, social, and political issues that are usually the province of learned professors or hot-shot wonks–and not of a woman who once, as an experiment, put a wasp in a jar and got it stoned. Caitlin ruminates on–and sometimes interviews–subjects as varied as caffeine, Keith Richards, Ghostbusters, Twitter, transsexuals, the welfare state, the royal wedding, Lady Gaga, and her own mortality, to name just a few. With her unique voice, Caitlin brings insight and humor to everything she writes.

Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand
No one is innocent, no one unexamined in Shirley Jackson award-winning author Elizabeth Hand’s new collection of stories. From the mysterious people next door to the odd guy in the next office over, Hand teases apart the dark strangenesses of everyday life to show us the impossibilities, broken dreams, and improbable dreams that surely can never come true.

The Right Way to Do Wrong by Harry Houdini with an introduction from Teller
Originally published in 1906, The Right Way to Do Wrong was a masterclass in subversion conducted by the world’s greatest illusionist. It collected Hou­dini’s findings, from interviews with criminals and police officers, on the most surefire ways to commit crime and get away with it.

This volume presents the best of those writings alongside little-known articles by Houdini on his own brand of deception: magic. Revealing the secrets of his signature tricks, including handcuff and rope escapes, and debunking the methods of his rivals, he proves 
himself to be just as clever and nimble a writer as he was a magician—and surprisingly free with trade secrets! All of which makes this unique selection of works both the ultimate anti-etiquette guide and proof that things are not always as they seem.

New in Paperback for August

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Lots of good stuff coming out in paperback this August. Head to your local bookstore and look for them on the shelves.

Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre
Hailed by the critics and lauded for its riotously funny and scathing portrayal of America in an age of trial by media, materialism, and violence, Vernon God Little was an international sensation when it was first published in 2003 and awarded the prestigious Man Booker Prize.

The memorable portrait of America is seen through the eyes of a wry, young, protagonist. Fifteen-year-old Vernon narrates the story with a cynical twang and a four-letter barb for each of his townsfolk, a medley of characters. With a plot involving a school shooting and death-row reality TV shows, Pierre’s effortless prose and dialogue combine to form a novel of postmodern gamesmanship.

DBC Pierre’s website

Misfit by Adam Braver
Melding facts with imagination, Misfit is centered around the last weekend of Marilyn Monroe’s life, which, wanting to get away from the stress of a lawsuit filed against her by Twentieth Century Fox, she spent at Frank Sinatra’s resort, the Cal Neva Lodge, in Lake Tahoe. Using this weekend as a springboard, the novel explores moments throughout Monroe’s career when, faced with various opportunities, she altered her persona—from her days as a child, to her marriages with Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, to her studies with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, and, finally, to her role in the film Miller wrote for her, The Misfits.


This Will End in Tears: The Miserabilist Guide to Music by Adam Brent Houghtaling
This Will End in Tears is the first ever and definitive guide to melancholy music. Author Adam Brent Houghtaling leads music fans across genres, beyond the enclaves of emo and mope-rock, and through time to celebrate the albums and artists that make up the miserabilist landscape. In essence a book about the saddest songs ever sung, This Will End in Tears is an encyclopedic guide to the masters of melancholy—from Robert Johnson to Radiohead, from Edith Piaf to Joy Division, from Patsy Cline to The Cure—an insightful, exceedingly engaging exploration into why sad songs make us so happy.

Persecution by Alessandro Piperno
In a sprawling villa on the outskirts of Rome, the members of the Pontecorvo family have gathered for dinner. Leo Pontecorvo, an internationally revered pediatric oncologist, is forty-eight. His wife, Rachel, is a physician and the loving mother to Filippo and Samuel, two amiable pre-teens. The evening news is on in the living room but nobody pays it any attention until Dr. Pontecorvo’s name surfaces from the background noise and a news item airs that will change the lives of the Pontecorvos forever.

Leo Pontecorvo has been publicly accused of a vile crime. A spotlight is turned on him that reveals the mistakes, regrets, and contradictions of a lifetime. Every detail of his private and professional life is about to come under scrutiny, to be debated by both friends and foes, by ravenous reporters and punctilious prosecutors. But Leo could bear all this if it weren’t for the suspicious gazes of his wife and children. Surely they, of all people, believe in his innocence!

Alessandro Piperno is widely acknowledged as one of today’s most talented European novelists. His voice is singular and shocking at times, yet always possessed of tenderness and enormous generosity of heart. His vision is broad and encompassing, his psychological insights penetrating and undeniable. In this deeply felt family drama, Alessandro Piperno paints a broad canvas and fills it with psychologically complex characters whom readers will instantly recognize and never forget.

Snowball’s Chance by John Reed
This unauthorized companion to George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a controversial parable about September 11th by one of fiction’s most inventive and provocative writers
Written in 14 days shortly after the September 11th attacks, Snowball’s Chance is an outrageous and unauthorized companion to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which exiled pig Snowball returns to the farm, takes charge, and implements a new world order of untrammeled capitalism. Orwell’s “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” has morphed into the new rallying cry: “All animals are born equal—what they become is their own affair.”

A brilliant political satire and literary parody, John Reed’s Snowball’s Chance caused an uproar on publication in 2002, denounced by Christopher Hitchens, and barely dodging a lawsuit from the Orwell estate. Now, a decade later, with America in wars on many fronts, readers can judge anew the visionary truth of Reed’s satirical masterpiece.

John Reed was born in New York City in 1969. Among his many books are the novels A Still Small Voice and The Whole, a play, All the World’s a Grave, and the non-fiction Tales of Woe. He currently teaches at The New School, and is a senior editor at The Brooklyn Rail.

Daniel Fights the Hurricane by Shane JonesEver since he was a boy, Daniel Suppleton has been deathly afraid of hurricanes, which he fears will arrive suddenly and reduce everyone he knows and loves to trembling skeletons. Retreating to live in a tipi in the woods, Daniel battles demons real and imagined. As his ex-wife, Karen, frantically searches for him, the long-awaited hurricane finally hits, and Daniel must find a way to save them both. Haunting, mesmerizing, and beautifully written, Daniel Fights a Hurricane is an affecting, original novel of love and loss, marriage and friendship, by a rising young talent.

Shane Jones is the author of the novel Light Boxes, which was named an NPR Best Book of 2010. His poetry and short fiction have appeared in numerous literary journals, including LIT, New York Tyrant, Fairy Tale Review, and the Milan Review. He lives in upstate New York.

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Shane Jones on Twitter

Written by Gabrielle

July 31, 2012 at 7:04 am

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