Define bad. Define okay. Define trouble. Define sad. It’s easy to offer dictionary definitions, but when it comes to personal interactions, things are not always so clear cut. As a writer and reader, I’m interested in what motivates people, how behaviors are formed, and just why we do what we do. Marisa Silver’s “Leap” is an intimate character examination that explores how an experience shapes and defines a woman’s life. We’re offered a non-judgmental, introspective view of the oil spill that is human emotion. We see how it shifts and changes, sinks and grows, affecting every aspect of self. Silver treats her characters with care and sympathy in such a way that we understand even the most questionable patterns of thought.
I was introduced to “Leap” when reading for Lookout’s upcoming anthology Astoria to Zion: Twenty-Six Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone's First Decade. Once I finished the story, I understood why it was included not only in this anthology, but in Ecotone’s fifth anniversary edition as well. The characters dwell in an emotional ecotone, where variant and even conflicting states overlap and exist in spite of one another.
The story opens with Sheila as a young girl, selling lemonade at a stand with her sister and two friends. They’re approached by a man holding a wrinkled bag. We immediately understand that his intentions are anything but genuine. While Sheila feels in her body that something is wrong, the event leaves her with a heightened sense of self-awareness. “Suddenly, she felt beautiful and much older than she had ten minutes earlier. She was certain of it … She would never tell her parents that for the first time she had been taken seriously.” From an early age, Sheila’s idea of desire is entangled with risk.
She expands on this subconscious notion later. “Girl trouble, on the other hand, was transformative. You could be driven home by a father after a babysitting gig and let him touch your breasts. You could have a fight with your boyfriend and get out of his car on a lonely road and be picked up by a stranger. You could have sex with a boy in his dorm room while his roommates walked in and out.”
We begin to see how that early interaction has woven itself into Sheila’s behavior. She’s “attracted to wily and insinuating men,” leading her to fall in love with and marry “unsettlingly straightforward” Colin, even though their compatibility is questionable. At thirty-seven, Sheila undergoes bypass surgery after learning of Colin’s infidelity. As she recovers, her dog Patsy leaps off a cliff.
Sheila’s desire for trouble may have led her to an unhappy marriage, but it also makes her persevere in the wake of physical and emotional calamity.
At some point in our lives we’re all hurt, but Silver reminds us that it’s part of necessary transformation—at once terrible and empowering, revealing, and complex. Although Patsy lives, she earns a “gimpy leg” from her brush with death. Sheila may have a broken heart, but she’s also “full of radiant possibility,” creating the opening for a new story.
Now that the annual AWP conference is just days away, we’re setting our sights on Seattle. In case you’re under the impression that it’s all coffee and mist, here are a few things we think might be fun to do while you’re in town.
When founded in the mid-nineteenth century, Seattle was several stories lower and its buildings were made of wood. After the Great Seattle Fire in 1889, city officials banned wooden structures and decided that instead of rebuilding the city at its original level, they would reconstruct it a story or two higher. What this means to you: you can tour Old Seattle (family-friendly or adult-oriented) and pretend you’ve time-traveled 150 years and live in the seedy underbelly of the American West.
(photo © Dougtone via Flickr Creative Commons)
If you’re the type to venture off the beaten path, you might want to do some exploring and find Seattle’s Sound Garden—yes, the band is named after it. It’s one of five public artworks located on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration (NOAA) campus, overlooking Lake Washington and adjacent to Magnusson Park. It’s an installation of hollow metal pipes that spin, whistle, and howl as wind blows through them. The effect is said to be beautiful, eerie, and maybe even a little supernatural.
Since 9/11, access has been limited, but the campus is open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. (Entry is allowed till 3:30 p.m.). It’s free, but you’ll need to bring a photo ID to get in, and be prepared to have your bags searched.
(photo © The Kozy Shack via Flickr Creative Commons)
Need fresh air? A break from 15,000 of your closest friends swarming the convention center? Why not take a picnic to an old gas plant? The plant, originally built to generate gas from coal, was made obsolete in the 1950s when the city began importing natural gas. In 1975, it was turned into a park, which sits on Lake Union and provides a lovely, sweeping view of the city.
(photo © analixa via Flickr Creative Commons)
And on Friday night, stop by our Astoria to Zion release party with Milkweed Editions and Ecotone! The Sorrento Hotel is just a short walk from the convention center, and the event will feature readings by Ben Fountain, Brock Clarke, Cary Holladay, and Rebecca Makkai. Drinks and snacks are free (while they last), and the cityscape view from the Sorrento penthouse is a must-see.
We’re back at it, and there’s plenty of author news to share this week.
Steve Almond helped heat up Valentine’s Day weekend along with authors John Papernick and Lana Fox at Harvard Book Store’s 50 Shades of Night: A Night of Erotica to Make You Blush.
Andrew Tonkovich discusses Mormonist Lit and Scientology, and gives a shout out to fellow Ecotone contributor Shawn Vestal’s short story “Winter Elders.”
Rick Bass has a new project with Stellarondo in which narrative and music come together in a “welcome exploration of some serious ‘what if’ questions.” Check it out here.
Robert Olen Butler participated in Mississippi State University’s first writer-in-residence program.
We’ll be living it up at the AWP conference in Seattle next week. Please visit us at tables A34/A35, and come support our contributors who are reading at the Astoria to Zion release party on Friday, February 28, 6–9 p.m., at the Sorrento Hotel. You won’t want to miss Ben Fountain, Brock Clarke, Cary Holladay, or Rebecca Makkai. See you there.
Last week I did an exercise in the poetry class I teach: we came up with ten lists of ten words that could fall under the category of love. In the first column, we started with some familiar images, like “heart-shaped boxes of chocolates” and “roses,” but by the tenth column we had images like “garlic” and “spider webs.” In the wake of Valentine’s Day, I thought it would be useful for my students to remember that love can be “butterflies” or “light,” but it can also extend into stranger, more complex notions, ranging from “cold potato soup” to “stretch marks” (their suggestions, not mine).
When I think of uniquely expressed love, I think of Robert Olen Butler’s short story, “At The Cultural Ephemera Association National Conference.” The story explores the familiar concept of love, but does so in an unfamiliar way. Butler details the meeting of the two main characters, Bill and Cleo, alternating between their voices to create a complete narrative. Each character is at the conference referred to in the title to present on a piece of paper ephemera—Bill’s is an advertising card featuring a caricature of nineteenth-century actress Anna Elizabeth Dickinson, Cleo’s is a Bourneville cocoa trading card depicting the Titanic. Upon my first reading, I was immediately struck by how the story made the delicate moment of connecting with another person so personal, yet accessible. The language, characters, and emotional impact are spot-on, and while it’s technically fiction, this four-and-a-half-page piece has the linguistic punch of a finely tuned poem.
I’ve never read a piece of short fiction that creates such a full love story in such a short space, and one that so richly suggests the transcendence of personal connection in the context of what is unexpected, how things are created and forgotten, and the smallest details—the Cadbury Titanic in the Bournville cocoa tin. Instead of picking up yet another Hallmark card, next time you want to write your love, think of sending a lasting bit of cultural ephemera.
Laurel Louise Jones,
Ecotone Poetry Editor
Before the economic crisis of 2008, Dubai purred gold. For his fantastically anchored story “Hagar’s Sons,” Astoria to Zion contributor Steve Almond draws upon the intersection of an unbridled moment and a richly interesting place. Take a look at these facts about pre-crisis Dubai, paired with excerpts from Almond’s “Hagar’s Sons.”
A pair of young women served him shirred eggs and dispatched him to a couchette, where he fell into a profound sleep.
For $19,130 a ticket, Emirates Airlines cradled passengers from New York City to Dubai in a private suite with a sliding door and a seat that reclined to form a bed. The thirteen-hour and twenty-five-minute flight was punctuated with seven-course meals served on Royal Doulton china.
He woke over a blue expanse decorated with islands in the shape of Arabic characters. These were the Suras, the Emirate’s latest project, 114 luxury islands.
“All dredged from the Gulf,” one of the beauties explained. “That one is the Thunder. The Moon is there. The Spoils of War. Oh, and that one is Repentance. Repentances is new!”
Dubai ambitiously began a few man-made island projects, which are now in varying stages of development:
- The Palm Jumeirah is a palm-tree shaped collection of islands that the city claims is the eighth wonder of the world.
- The Palm Jebel Ali, on which construction is halted, plans to use a breakwater to spell out a line of poetry by Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum: “It takes a man of vision to write on water.”
- The World is, naturally, an archipelago of 300 islands that forms a world map in miniature. Currently, only two of the 300 islands have been developed: Greenland and Lebenon.
There were no clocks anywhere. The surfaces sparkled. The air was richly oxygenated. Cohen was staying on the top floor of the Haj. From his window he counted 143 cranes.
The Burj Al Arab is, perhaps, the world’s must luxurious hotel. Opulence threads every seam of the sail-shaped structure. Each of the 202 double-story suites comes with 24-hour butler service just outside the door. Should you need to escape, the helipad may be accessed on level 28.
[source and photo: Burj Al Arab]
A Bloody Mary appeared in his hand. “Agassi and Sampras played tennis right where we’re sitting. You seen either of those guys play?” The sheik drained his Bloody Mary.
In 2005, the hotel Burj Al Arab’s helipad was covered in grass for an exhibition match between tennis stars Andrew Agassi and Roger Federer. Occurring at 1,053 feet above the Arabian Gulf, the media stunt promoted the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
Cohen sat beside the sheik’s nephew in a canary-yellow Hummer and gazed at the far end of the strip.
Cars are the best way to peacock. Beyond make and model, vanity plates in the United Arab Emirates are a highly coveted accessory. The most prestigious vanity plate? That would be a single number: 1. In Abu Dhabi, the coup of being “number 1” was purchased at a 2008 auction for $14.3 million dollars. In Dubai, though, the top spot isn’t for sale. Vanity plate “1” is reserved for His Highness, ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
compiled by Stephanie Harcrow,
No one writes love poems like the incomparable poet John Rybicki, author of When All the World Is Old. Today only, we’re offering John’s collection for $10. Just enter LOVE as the promotional code on the payment methods screen.
Why Everything Is a Poem
There’s my ashen girl in the stands
with a scarf over her soft to steel-wool head.
She’s there like some buoy next to a friend
she calls sister, who has been riding
a separate current now for years.
It has been too much for too long and we know it
is time to take hold of the lightning and let it kill her,
or fill her—doctor or angel or nurse—
like some new balloon and set her glancing
across the rooftops with her dancing slippers.
She’ll sprinkle a little sand over each roof
and soft-shoe it for the sleepers.
I can’t hide the hawks. I can’t hide the crows
under my tongue and tell my lass so
kneeling beside her in the bathroom.
Can I learn to love the ashes of this world,
turn my palms to the sky like the first snow
is sifting down? Can I catch my love on my tongue
after she is gone, close my eyes while my own wife
dissolves into me? We’re on a possible farewell tour
visiting old friends when she tilts her face
my way from the stands. We make in one look
a hammock of our blood and I pool where she pools,
drink from that well of loneliness in her
I can’t quite loop my arms around.
Then we turn again to where our friend’s son
skates gladiatorial with his long hair fluttering
from beneath his hockey helmet.
That boy who once swam across my belly
reaching to pinch my bristly chin hairs.
I sing to keep the embers in the night sky alive—
those sparks God tows out of my love’s chest
each night. I sing from the crown of her stubbled head
to the arch of her foot where I’d kiss and kiss her
till she said, Dude, rub in the love like you do.
I sing her dripping just out of the bathtub,
her finger squeaking against the steam
on the bathroom window where she’s scrawling
her last love note to my own son and me. She’s singing
the words over and over as she writes, I love my boys,
leaning hard on the o in love.
She leaves a heart and words that reappear
when we place our mouths close to the glass.
My son and I fog it with our breath
after she is gone.
From When All the World Is Old (Lookout Books). Copyright © 2012 by John Rybicki. Used by permission of Lookout Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Happy Valentine’s Day! While most of us are romantics at heart, we’d just like to point out that we don’t need a special day show love for Lookout authors and Ecotone contributors. Fridays are dedicated author roundups but know this: we love you every day.
A few author happenings you might find interesting:
Astoria to Zion contributor Miha Mazzini's Crumbs, the best-ever selling novel in Yugoslavia, is being republished. The Skinny speaks with him here about “navigating self-determination” and claims that this new publication “could prove more timely than ever.”
Ecotone 16 contributor Molly Antopol writes of Lookout author Edith Pearlman for My Jewish Learning, “Many of the most important things I’ve learned about writing I gleaned from reading Pearlman: that some of the best, and most satisfying, story collections aren’t woven together by character or by a particular place, but by something as ephemeral as theme—displacement, heartbreak, the secrets we keep from the people closest to us.”
Enjoy your weekend, and don’t forget that chocolate gets discounted on February 15!