Introducing “The Blue Tree” by Rick Bass

Before relocating to North Carolina for graduate school this past summer, I lived for eight years in New York City. The city offered some of the world’s finest food and culture—four-star meals at Daniel, La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera House—but the one thing not readily accessible was natural beauty, though I tried hard to seek it out. My go-to spot was a small, nondescript bench at the peak of Fort Tryon Park, one of Manhattan’s highest points, where I could see the Hudson River laid plain. But as anybody in New York can tell you, nothing in the Big Apple comes easy, and enjoying the view was no exception. There were all manner of distractions to contend with: the endless noise of buses and trucks rumbling along the Henry Hudson Parkway a hundred feet below, the bleating of car horns, the smog roiling up from factory furnaces on the other side of the river bank. And yet if I sat there long enough, eventually the world would grow quiet, and I’d notice the elm tree branches overhead perfectly framing my view of the river.

The Blue Tree" by Rick Bass in Lookout’s recent anthology Astoria to Zion: Twenty-Six Stories of Risk and Abandon asks how we hold just such a moment. In it, the main character, Wilson, struggles in nature as much as he enjoys it, and grapples with the impermanence of youth. The story begins with him, his wife, Belinda, and their two daughters, arriving at their cabin in the woods the day before Christmas Eve. Tradition dictates that Wilson cut their tree that night; he wants everything—as in years past—in place for a restful Christmas Eve. Against Belinda’s better judgment, Wilson packs his daughters in the Subaru and heads north in the falling snow, deeper into the forest, where the best trees can be found. They get stuck, of course, just as his wife had predicted.

Wilson digs out the area behind each wheel. He climbs into the driver’s seat and presses the gas pedal, but his attempts only make matters worse. “The car has become an ice-making machine, a perfect arrangement of temperature, humidity, dew point, and snow depth … and Wilson realizes, with an unpleasant jolt, that they’re screwed.” As Wilson and his daughters begin the three-mile trek back to the cabin, his girls take sides in an impending argument. The eldest, Stephanie, rolls her eyes at her father’s stupidity; the younger, Lucy, defends his actions. 

Their fight is cut short when Stephanie perks to a noise in the woods. Wilson yells into the darkness to announce their presence. He assures the girls it’s just a deer, “But they can hear the lie in his voice, and they draw closer to him.” He lets out a throaty snarl, and the lion, or whatever threatens them, retreats. Before long they return to the magnificent spruce tree at the top of their own driveway, which Wilson has rigged with alternating blue and white lights. “The girls stop and stare at it without speaking … five seconds, six seconds, seven seconds, eight: they stand there catching their breath, gazing at this special thing.” As his daughters run toward the safety of their cabin, Wilson “lingers a moment longer, staring at the glowing blue tree—but already the moment is dissolving.”

It’s these last haunting lines that capture the feeling I had while sitting atop that bench in New York City: “He savors it, knowing it won’t always be this way. But it is now. More so than he could ever have imagined.”

Justin Klose,
Lookout intern

To enjoy the story its entirety, read “The Blue Tree” in Astoria to Zion: Twenty-Six Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone’s First Decade.

It’s Astoria to Zion Publication Day!

Lookout is thrilled to celebrate the official publication day of Astoria to Zion: Twenty-Six Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone’s First Decade.

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We unveiled Astoria to Zion last week during the surprisingly sunny whirlwind that was AWP Seattle. EcotoneLookout, and Milkweed Editions co-hosted a book release party atop downtown Seattle’s gorgeous Sorrento Hotel. Longtime friend of Ecotone Ben Fountain, who wrote the foreword, introduced the collection; contributors Brock Clarke, Cary Holladay, and Rebecca Makkai offered fantastic readings from their stories. For more photos from the event, please see our coverage on Facebook. Check back here for upcoming video interviews with the gracious contributors as well.

imageCary Holladay reads from her story “Horse People” (see a digital broadside inspired by the story here).

Team Lookout has been working on Astoria to Zion for more than a year now. It seems like so long ago that we sat in Emily Smith’s publishing practicum course, armed with every back issue of Ecotone, fervently debating which stories to include in the anthology. From those early discussions to drafts of the cover and interior design to the planning of readings and other promotions; so much time, energy, and joy has gone into making this anthology a true celebration of the first ten years of Ecotone.

If you haven’t purchased a copy yet, please consider ordering directly from us here, or through an independent bookstore. (Check this blog for an upcoming feature about some of our favorite indie bookstores!)

For this week only, we’re offering Astoria to Zion for $10 with the promo code PUBDAY, as thanks for your support of Lookout and our twenty-six contributors. 

Katie Jones,
Lookout intern

Photos by Christine Hennessey

Introducing “Leap” by Marisa Silver

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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.

Becky Eades,
Lookout intern

Seattle must-sees for AWP

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.

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 Seattle Underground

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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)

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The Sound Garden

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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) 

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Gas Works Park

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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)

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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.

Katie Prince,
Lookout intern

Five Dubai Stranger-Than-Fictions

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.”

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A pair of young women served him shirred eggs and dispatched him to a couchette, where he fell into a profound sleep.

imageFor $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.

[source: New York Times, photo: Emirates.com]

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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!

imageDubai 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.

[source: Time, photo: Weather.com]

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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.

imageThe 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]

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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.

imageIn 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.

[source: ESPN, photo: Sports Illustrated]

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Cohen sat beside the sheik’s nephew in a canary-yellow Hummer and gazed at the far end of the strip.

imageCars 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.

[sources: ABC and BBC, photo: World News]

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Want to get lost in this world a bit more? The complete story, “Hagar’s Sons” by Steve Almond, can be found in God Bless America (Lookout, 2011), or in the new anthology Astoria to Zion.

compiled by Stephanie Harcrow,
Lookout intern

 

A Valentine’s Day Poem by John Rybicki

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.

Friday Author Roundup

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: 

Lookout author Steve Almond explains the goodness of bad writing in his latest post for The Writer’s Notebook, AWP’s blog.

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!

Top Five Most Crush-Worthy Men of Literary Fiction

What better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day than with a list of our literary crushes? We’re rolling out the gents today, but stay tuned tomorrow for a list of leading ladies. 



5. Robinson Crusoe

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Independent, practical, and versatile, Mr. Crusoe appeals to those who appreciate an element of the handyman, and it doesn’t hurt that he spent much of his life alone, diminishing the chances of him carrying unnecessary baggage into the relationship. Also, we hear that he’s quite wealthy. You may have to convert to Christianity, but if you’re willing, this may be the match for you.



4. Gilbert from the Anne of Green Gables Series

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Sure, he’s young. But Gilbert stole our hearts from the first tug on Anne’s carroty braid, and by the end of the series, we wanted to scratch Anne’s eyes out with jealousy. (He was older by then.)



3. Tomas from The Unbearable Lightness of Being

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Who doesn’t love the flawed man (I mean character) who realizes that love really does conquer all? A womanizing workaholic, Tomas discovers that the best things in life are neither things nor women who are not his wife. 



2. Lestat from Interview with the Vampire

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The original hot immortal Lestat de Lioncourt would mop the floor with Edward Cullen. Sulky and sexy, he turned our heads the first time he sank his fangs into a willing jugular. 



1. Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird

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Intelligent and noble with an unwavering moral code, widower Atticus Finch leads by example, instilling in his two kids the value of being able to climb into someone else’s skin and walk around in it. The swoon-worthy lawyer accepts the appointment to Tom Robinson’s case and defends him mightily—even though he knows he’ll lose—because it’s the right thing to do.

Compiled by Heather Hammerbeck,
Lookout intern

design by Lookout intern Eric Cipriani

design by Lookout intern Eric Cipriani

Friday Author Roundup

The weekend is almost here and we know you have exciting plans. But first take a second to read our author roundup and impress your hot date with all the literary insider news. 

Did you know that Astoria to Zion contributor Andrew Tonkovich is the weekly host of Bibliocracy on radio KPFK 90.7 FM, broadcasting out of Santa Monica, CA? Join him on Wednesday nights. 

Astoria to Zion contributor Rebecca Makkai is featured as part of Ploughshares' series "One Year In: Writing the Novel." Here’s a bit of wisdom on writing a second novel: “If it doesn’t feel completely foreign and new and like you’re working without a net, then you’re probably repeating yourself.” To read more of her terrific interview and to find other author interviews, click through.

Brock Clarke’s novel Exley has been chosen as the official book club selection by Critical Era, a “free online contemporary fiction book club that meets with up and coming authors on a monthly basis to discuss their work.” He will discuss the book via Skype Feb. 20 at 9 p.m.