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#NFLDraft Closeup

April 29, 2017

The new function of Fairmount “Park”

More observations on the #NFLDraft Experience, which I have the privilege of viewing up close without leaving my front step. In the following notes I’ll try to be as unbiased and truthful as possible. This morning my wife took a potting class at a garden center and failed to bring home any pot, so you know I’m totally unmedicated and clear-headed as I write.

  • Around 9 a.m. about 75 police swarmed our neighborhood’s famous gilded Joan of Arc statue. It was interesting to see these beefy guys in blue surrounding slim little Joanie on her horse. She campaigned to protect a country and a prince that she loved from foreign invaders. Our cops are out there to protect NFL multimillionaires from their fans and the fans from themselves.
  • I never realized that choosing up players for teams required so many speeding black SUVs and siren-blaring motorcycle escorts. Back in junior high it was much simpler. The team captain just pointed and you stepped over next to him. I fondly remember the day I wasn’t the very last one picked.
  • The uniform for an NFL fan is a jersey with someone else’s name on it. The psychology is a little hard for me to understand. I mean, yes, you show allegiance to your favorite player, but at the cost of submerging your own identity? If I were going to wear a jersey with someone else’s name, I wouldn’t settle for any old All-Star runner or passer or tackler. I’d want to honor a rapist, girlfriend beater or dog torturer. Luckily there are plenty of those to choose from.
  • Despite the huge traffic jams clogging our streets, not many horns are blowing. This proves that most of the drivers are from out of town.
  • A traffic jam is actually entertaining to watch when you’re not in a car. Poor schlubs, hee-hee-hee. As long as no one has a heart attack.
  • People have been engaging in loud arguments on the sidewalk in front of my house, in the middle of the day. This, too, proves they’re from out of town. Philadelphians would wait till midnight.
  • Not even locals realized the iconic stature of our Art Museum. Because the mammoth stage constructed for the draft blocks the view of the Museum’s noble columns, the stage incorporates fake columns made of foam. Don’t believe that? Read about it here and here.
  • Realizing that exactly none of the estimated $80 million generated by this event will go to our impoverished, traumatized public schools, neighbors have brainstormed other fundraising options. For instance, what about the magnificent Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the boulevard leading up to the Art Museum that all these outsiders love to appropriate for mega-events? Noting that Franklin has done little for us lately, we’re proposing to sell re-naming rights to the street, all proceeds going to the schools. Corporations, think of this: with every televised event your name would be mentioned hundreds of times. We already have Citizens Bank Park and Lincoln Financial Field, so how about the Comcast Parkway? The McDonalds Mile? The Oprah Oval? Applicants, please write to Mayor Jim Kenney, and attach an appropriate political contribution.

 

Here in Poland, formerly known as the Art Museum neighborhood of Philadelphia, we are proud to welcome the NFL Draft Experience Extravapalooza. One in a long series of events that bring us hundreds of thousands of visitors and, in this case, the largest temporary stage ever seen in the city and perhaps the galaxy, this celebration promises days of enjoyment for all.

Already, in the run-up to the event, we’ve savored the following benefits:

  • Hundreds of convenient porta-potties installed around the neighborhood
  • Closure of major traffic arteries, offering the opportunity to sit meditatively behind the wheel and view the sights of our city through clouds of exhaust
  • Attractive military-style trailers and vehicles lining the streets
  • Outside security staff warning locals not to walk their dogs in the area
  • The sweet thrash and blare of helicopters cruising overhead
  • As shown in the picture, the locking of mailboxes, to defend us both from terrorists who hate football and from drunken fans who can’t distinguish a mailbox from a trash can

Some grumps—and I admit to knowing a few—have begun complaining about the frequency with which our neighborhood is rented out to private organizations that want to capitalize on the iconic Parkway and Rocky Steps. But we’re getting an estimated $80 million for this deal!—money that the city, still in many ways the most impoverished in the nation, desperately needs. With this influx of funds, we’ll be able to raise the salaries of our corporate leaders who live in the suburbs, bolster the political clout and intimidation power of union heads like our famous Johnny Doc, and ensure that agencies like our Parking Authority and Housing Authority—national models of featherbedding and corruption—continue their good work.

That is why the residents of our neighborhood have formally agreed to rename the area Poland, in honor of the frequent invasions from outside our borders. The entire city, in fact, has temporarily relabeled itself, as shown by this newspaper headline:

Most amazingly, the fuddy-duddies at the Art Museum, those conservative upper-crusters who have long sneered at the Rocky statue as a mere movie prop and lamented the sacrifice of the Museum steps for TV ratings, are now finally getting with the program. At a recent meeting, the Board of Trustees voted to allow the sale of naming rights for iconic objects in the Museum collections. The first such treasure, formerly known as Fountain by Marcel Duchamp, has now been unveiled in the main lobby with its new corporate moniker:

Trump Hotels® Luxury Visitor Accommodation

The Usual Suspects

February 28, 2017

teslaimageA new story of mine, “The Usual,” has been posted in Literary Orphans.

Go here to read the story, and here for the issue’s TOC and links to other great stuff, including the explanation of why the issue is called “Tesla.”

Editor-in-Chief Scott Waldyn’s introduction to the issue concludes with this note pertinent to our times:

There are days where it may seem like we’re losing the war, but sometimes the path ahead isn’t always a step up. Like Nikola Tesla, we just need to keep at it and play the long game.

Yeah. #WritersResist.

curiouscoverI’ve been meaning to write about a book I read last year, A Curious Land (University of Massachusetts Press, 2015; paperback, 2016), a volume of fiction by Susan Muaddi Darraj set in Tel al-Hilou, a Palestinian village near Ramallah. This task has lingered on my to-do list for a while, but a couple of recent developments have spurred me to it: the paranoid and mean-spirited attempts by the White House to cleanse the USA of immigrants, and the president’s openness to a Mideast “one-state solution,” a phrase I’ve never understood because a solution is supposed to solve something—and what in the world (even our distorted Twitterworld) would this one solve?

As American politics becomes curiouser and curiouser, it’s a good time to ground ourselves with some fine fiction. A Curious Land consists of connected short stories, a form Muaddi Darraj has made very much her own. Her previous book of fiction, The Inheritance of Exile, also made up of linked stories, focused on young Palestinian American women growing up in South Philly. (I wrote about it in July 2010.) The new book takes us to Palestine itself, tracing the lives of fairly ordinary people through several generations, across most of the twentieth century. A Curious Land won the Grace Paley Prize, the Arab American Book Award, and the American (no qualifier) Book Award, and yet I feel it’s underappreciated.

I should say, first of all, that I’m not interested in A Curious Land merely because liberals like me who believe in diversity love to promote books about foreign or minority cultures. In fact, my reading preferences tend toward old white folks, both those who are dead and those who might as well be. And when I see an author who represents “diversity” being lauded despite sloppy or sentimental writing, I get annoyed (as well as jealous). So, yes, I think Muaddi Darraj’s work can promote a better understanding of Palestinian communities—an understanding we sorely need at the moment—but I wouldn’t focus on it for that reason alone.

The most important reason to discuss A Curious Land is that Muaddi Darraj is an excellent writer, with a precise yet moving and poetic style, an eye attuned to nuances of feeling and an ability to create well-fleshed characters. I’ll quote a bit from the long final story, “Christmas in Palestine,” one of a few pieces in the book that venture far from Tel al-Hilou. Adlah, a young woman from the village, has gone to the USA to study, has married there and now (1998) is struggling to get pregnant, torturing herself with injections and suppositories prescribed by her fertility guru. She hasn’t returned home in a decade, even skipping her father’s funeral last year because of the baby-making routine. Now, though, she’s offered a chance to visit Tel al-Hilou as a translator for an archeological team, and she accepts, to her husband’s dismay. Shortly before she leaves comes this scene:

The 18th was their eight-year wedding anniversary, and they ate dinner at the small French place in Midtown where he’d proposed. It used to be their annual tradition, but they’d not dined there in some time, and Adlah could see that the décor was changed—new, sparkly chandeliers and long curtains, but she didn’t mention it to Ken. He was too angry, and had barely spoken to her on the drive over. He’d spent the last two weeks sulking, since she told him about the assignment. Strangely—and it scared her—she didn’t care. It was too tiring to muster up some indignation or mount a counter-argument. Now, as they sat and sipped their drinks—he had some Pinot Grigio and she sparkling water—he barely looked at her, just hunched over his menu.

“It’s almost like you’re not trying,” he said finally.

“I am.” She felt sick at how he was beginning. “In 45 minutes, I have to go to the bathroom for the 7 p.m. injection.”

“I know.”

“Christ, Ken.”

“But this trip—you don’t need to do this.”

She didn’t answer, not sure how to explain it to him. For two years, her life had been consumed by this thing. Two years of solid failure. Everything on hold, don’t change the house, don’t buy new furniture, keep the same car. Their lives were frozen in place, awaiting a blue line on a white stick, the symbol of success. Her arms, her stomach were blue from needle marks. And when her father died eighteen months ago, she didn’t go because they’d just done an embryo transfer. It had made her sick, to grieve alone—here in New York, while everyone back home comforted each other. She’d consoled herself with the idea that, if it were a boy, she’d name him Muneer [after her father], and Ken agreed easily, trying to help her deal with the injustice of it. She’d even convinced herself that her father would bless her from heaven, and make things right, make that cycle “the one.” And, like a cruel prank, it hadn’t worked.

“I’m not leaving till after the transfer on Thursday.”

“Flying can’t be good—”

“There’s no proof of that.”

After their plates were slid onto their table and their drinks refreshed, when they’d eaten in near-silence, she ordered a glass of wine, her eyes locked on Ken, daring him to oppose it. He sighed and raised his glass, clinking it gently against hers. The stem looked so fragile, like an icicle in his large hands.

“Happy anniversary,” he said softly. “I love you,” he added, and the words stung her because he sighed as he spoke them, like it was an exertion of effort.

Tears sprang to her eyes, and without even taking a sip, she stood and picked up her purse.

“Well—what’s … what is it?”

“Seven o’clock. I’ll be right back.” She walked quickly to the restroom, sliding between tables of couples too engrossed in one another to notice her.

Though I might quibble with small stylistic points, such as the multiple uses of “barely” and “some” in the first paragraph and the fact that Adlah feels “sick” twice in a short span, I admire the quick flashes of emotion, the undertones of anger and frustration revealed in the way a person looks at a menu or gets up from the table. The story then takes Adlah “home” to Palestine, where Ken’s absence doesn’t automatically make her heart grow fonder. Her marriage is tested when she meets a handsome, wealthy, educated Palestinian who comes on to her, but the tale doesn’t turn out as expected; this author won’t settle for a simplistic, “one-state” answer to Adlah’s quandary.

Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict plays a role in these stories—how could it not?—Muaddi Darraj doesn’t stress political divisions, or religious ones for that matter, though the villagers are Christian in a Muslim and Jewish land. Rather, she’s interested in the everyday lives of her characters. Whatever the political situation, people have to live with it. They fall in and out of love, quarrel, engage in family feuds, leave the village and come back. They get sick or get well. They change as they age, or they fail to change. Characters we knew as young people show up in later stories as elders, as memories or as village legends. The links are important, but so are the breaks between stories; as one reviewer put it, the use of separate, connected pieces creates a “sense of contingency within the unfolding narratives. There are few definite endings or neat resolutions—or if there are, we hear about them tangentially, decades later, as an aside” (Sarah Irving, “Memory, Home and Belonging in ‘A Curious Land,’” The Electronic Intifada, June 13, 2016).

This effective use of the connected-story form is another reason I wanted to discuss A Curious Land. Other contemporary examples of linked stories include Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and Orla McAlinden’s The Accidental Wife, now a hit in Northern Ireland though mostly ignored in the USA. The form goes way back, of course; any English major will think of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. All of these books have a unity of place—centering on a small geographical area—and characters that reappear in multiple tales, allowing us different perspectives on their personalities and behavior. In all of them the links among the stories deepen and enrich the book’s impact. None, though, is as tightly structured as a traditional novel.

To me, and I suspect to many others as well, this looser form feels more appropriate for our era of fragmentation and uncertainty than a novel with a firm central plot intersected by one or more carefully angled subplots. Of course, the novel itself has always been an extremely flexible form, allowing for organizations as loose as that of Moby-Dick (clear main plot with hundreds of pages of non-narrative essays that do little to advance the story) and 2066, Roberto Bolaño’s mammoth posthumous work whose multiple plots and semi-random incidents seem to explode outward, sending tracers disappearing into space. Still, most readers who pick up a book called a “novel” will expect to find, in some sense, a unified arc of events, and writers facing the chaos of our world may be reluctant to offer that neatness.

Generally the linked-story approach has been well accepted by critics. Edwidge Danticat and Junot Diaz are two others who’ve won praise for it. Too often, though, publishers have been eager to label such efforts “novels in stories,” a promotional ploy that leads the reader to expect more cohesion and unity than actually exist. This marketing trend provoked novelist and editor William Giraldi to pen a stern diatribe against the so-called novel in stories (“The Mysterious Case of Novel-in-Stories,” The Rumpus, May 27, 2011):

Every story should rightly achieve its own destination, so a novel-in-stories ends up having several, whereas a novel can have only one. To say you’ve fashioned a novel from stories is to say you’ve fashioned an adult by standing one child on the shoulders of another.…

This cannot be stated enough: a novel is as different from a collection of stories as a truck is from a tricycle: they both have wheels, yes, and will get you where you need to be, though in decidedly dissimilar fashions and with dissimilar degrees of alacrity.

Giraldi agrees that part of the blame for “novels in stories” lies with publishers:

the concept was cooked up by the nonliterary minds in New York marketing who, on the one hand, wanted to sign young writers fresh from the M.F.A. mill and, on the other hand, didn’t want to wait for those young writers to learn how to write a novel.

He goes on to assign blame as well to Americans’ inability to appreciate the short story for its own merits, as “a form perfectly suited to modernity’s fundamentally Freudian method of accessing phenomena: in segments”—and a form, he also argues, that American writers have mastered far more than the novel.

Hugo van der Goes, THE PORTINARI ALTAR, late 1400s (from Wikimedia Commons)

I accept much of what he says. Yet, in this essay at least, he seems unwilling to grant that the connections among related stories can be valuable enough to make a whole greater than the sum of the parts. In a book like A Curious Land the stories interact with the same grace and subtlety as the panels of a Renaissance triptych. Each piece benefits from the others. Muaddi Darraj even throws in a little surprise at the end (hinted at on the cover) to loop the tales together.

Those who’ve read my own book The Shame of What We Are may suppose it falls into this category. I do see it as a novel, however: unlike most books of linked stories, it has a single protagonist, a single point of view and a steady chronological progression; moreover, the gaps between stories are used deliberately and strategically to reinforce the themes. When I had to label the book for publication, though, I felt the phrase “novel in stories” had been discredited by publishers’ dishonesty, so I chose “a novel in pieces,” a phrase I hoped would offer a clue about the content as well as the structure.

I consider the other books discussed here as something different, related stories that support each other but do not constitute a novel and should not be shoehorned into that category. It’s really an insult to the writers to pretend such works are novels or to talk as if they should be. The linked-story collection is a form in itself, and if we’re seeing a genuine trend toward it, perhaps we should come up with a catchier name. “Storvel” sounds like an eccentric wading bird, so my best suggestion at the moment is “story cycle” or “story sequence.”

Whatever we call it, A Curious Land is a fine exemplar, and if it serves a socially important purpose as well, all the more reason to read it.

Later note: On March 3, 2017, Michael Knight’s article in Publishers Weekly recommended “The 10 Best Interlinked Story Collections.” Though I hate top-ten lists, his is a good introduction to the form that he, too—despite having published such a collection himself—doesn’t know what to call.

Shocked!

February 19, 2017

Change Seven magazine has posted a guest blog entry of mine about surviving a (Trumpian) shock to the system. Here’s the link.

The general theme, in keeping with the magazine’s name, was “change,” and I started to ponder how our former ideas about change seem both still-relevant and terribly quaint. The old term “future shock” popped into my mind—which was kind of like reading a letter you wrote as a teenager and realizing that, back then, you understood far more than you do now.

The original gerrymander in Massachusetts

The original gerrymander in Massachusetts

At the second meeting of the #WritersResist group in Philadelphia, I learned about Fair Districts PA, a group determined to convert Pennsylvania to a nonpartisan redistricting process before the 2020 census.

Every ten years, after the national census, states redraw their district lines — both for the state legislature and for the U.S. House of Representatives. Under the current system in most states, those in power in the legislature gerrymander the districts to make sure they stay in power. We get districts shaped like this (from the U.S. Department of the Interior via Wikipedia):

pa_uscongressionaldistrict12

 

Besides perpetuating one-party control, the “safe seats” contribute to gridlock on both a local and a national scale. If lines are drawn to make sure that those with certain views get reelected (and reelected and reelected and reelected), they have no need to listen to any dissenting voices or consider any compromise.

Although the USA is not the only country to allow gerrymandering, the practice is particularly egregious here, and the Supreme Court’s rulings on the subject have been indecisive.

I’ve long bemoaned Americans’ lax voting habits. There are two principal ways to influence politicians: money and votes. Most of us don’t have the first, and too many of us throw away the second.

Obviously, one way to encourage voting is to make the districts fairer. If we eliminate automatic winners, people will be more inclined to think their votes count for something.

So do check out Fair Districts PA or a similar group in your own state. And vote!

(I’m still fuming at my friends who didn’t bother to vote last November.)

 

Dogs Welcome

January 26, 2017

It should be obvious from the picture at the top that dogs are already welcome on this blog—in fact, they run our operation, compensated with the occasional biscuit—but the heading of this post refers to a story of mine, “Dogs Welcome,” that has just been published at Change Seven.

Here’s a link directly to the story. I’m billing the piece as a useful escape, totally irrelevant to contemporary political concerns. It never once mentions President Twitterman. On the other hand, it features a character who shows a bit of compassion for others, so perhaps that’s not untimely.

Thanks to editor Sheryl Monks and other members of the Change Seven staff, and also to members of the Working Writers Group, who helped me see what was wrong (a lot!) in an earlier draft of the story.

The magazine invites contributors to do a guest blog post on the subject of change, and mine will be up soon. In the meantime, check out Katrina Denza’s post called “This Is What Democracy Looks Like”—a reflection on the Women’s March in DC.