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DH: Kyle Beachy’s heartland debut, the coming-of-age novel The Slide, was published by the hyper-selective Dial Press in January of 2009. The Slide takes place in St. Louis and I joined a St. Louis Cardinals fan club while I was reading that book. I’m not even a baseball fan. But I was carried away by The Slide’s uplifting regionalism.

Right now, Kyle is gearing up to teach a course in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I was able to catch up with KB between semesters and he provided the Guys with the knockout post below. Reading Kyle’s post made me wish I could audit his class.

When We Fell in Love by Kyle Beachy

My first reading of White Noise took place outdoors, in a reclining deck chair with my feet up against the log railing outside of a friend’s parent’s log home built onto a mountainside in Summit County, state of Colorado. I mention this for two reasons. First, to clarify that I was then, as I had been all of my life, plugged neatly into a world of American wealth and wasteful consumption, which made the big red DeLillo target on my back all the bigger and redder. I had also just finished college, and so (second reason) having the freedom to read this way and not have to think in terms of analysis was weird for me and sort of uncomfortable. Halfway through I realized I was underlining and writing marginalia, though I didn’t know why. It was also, incidentally, the first week of September, 2001. (If the date matters, which it might, it matters in such a nuanced and personal way I probably shouldn’t even begin.)

I can’t recall where I was when I first read Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. I do know that when I tried to read it a second time it did not take, and so I was for certain in Chicago, where trains rattle overhead and the wind carries knives and winter comes like a trade embargo, fully-armed with tanks and warships; a city, God bless it, that is frankly no place for a love story. The only reason I went looking for this most famous of the early Murakamis was because I’d read Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World as an undergraduate and fallen deeply for the novel’s quiet take on apocalypse. It is a mad scientist and his fat daughter in pink, Inklings crawling through dark tunnels beneath Tokyo, and a protagonist (who is two protagonists, actually) caught between two warring systems (that are one system, actually). Plus also unicorns that do just fine without rainbows, which good luck finding too many of those.

I bought my copy of Denis Johnson’s The Name of the World from one of the grumpy, ageless men who unfold their tables of books on Bedford Avenue, in Williamsburg, and then stand towering over them while avoiding eye contact and seeming just outrageously put out when you ask how much one of the books costs. It is a hardback first edition of a book I had read in paperback years earlier while traveling, and then left on some bus somewhere and forgotten almost completely about except for one line that stayed with me, and which was the sole reason I handed the man four of my dollars even though he was a big fat asshole and my luggage was already full and I was running late for meeting a journalist, and was nervous because he (the journalist) was going to interview me about writing, and “struggles” and I had never really been interviewed before, and I was scared. It really is an amazing line, subtle and easily grazed over but surely the sort for which we should all bow to Johnson, one which equates the farthest limits of human emotion with our smallest efforts of mere existence.

The flight home from New York gave me time to read in search of that line. I didn’t find it until page 87, and by that point I had decided that the younger me had gotten the book all kinds of wrong, and wrong in the way that only the older, aspiring writer me could diagnose. Because, though bizarre and puzzling in terms of structure and movement and scope, The Name of the World is stacked full of magic moments of grace and horror and wonder, all described in language that is, if nothing else, distinctly Johnson’s. That is to say, the novel is perhaps not great but the lines it contains most certainly (sometimes) are. Here is the sentence I went searching for, plus the set-up that comes just before:

Her blouse was sleeveless and her armpits stained with wide blotches of sweat. I made a note to myself — I had to get to a chemist someday, and ask if sweat is the same substance as tears.

If White Noise educated me through its trafficking of negatives and its America of misinformation and misunderstood systems, and Hard Boiled Wonderland taught me the value of a steady narrative hand in treating wild imagination, then The Name of the World opened my eyes to the beauty of imperfection, the simple truth that writing, like reading, is a process, one in which small successes will often find themselves surrounded by larger failures, and that the resulting imperfection, each unique admixture of good and bad, is, in a very real sense, the entire point.

Have you ever wanted to sit a literary agent down and ask them all those burning questions bouncing around in your brain: How important is the query? What kind of books get you excited? How many author clients do you REALLY find in the slush pile?

So have we. And so we did. Enter Adriann Ranta, newly-arrived agent at Wolf Literary Services who has spent years shepherding writers through the editing and agenting processes. Adriann handled all the hard-hitting writing questions we dished out, and even asked for seconds.

Read on to discover what Adriann considers the best kind of query letters, what she thinks about YA books, and why she loves the word “percussive.” Then it’ll be time to get an agent for yourself! Success never tasted so good!

WordHustler: How did you get your start in the publishing industry?

Adriann Ranta: I graduated with my obligatory, directionless liberal arts degree having no idea what I wanted to do with books, but knowing I had to do something with them since they’re all I’ve really felt passionately about. After considering and quickly declining a phone sex job as an outlet for creativity, I got a job at The Editorial Department, the oldest freelance editing firm in the country, based in Tucson, AZ.

I worked as their managing editor of Between the Lines, gathering info and interviewing professionals in the industry. Eventually, I moved to New York and through a variety of internships, assistant positions, and odd jobs found that agenting is the niche that most suits me.

WH: What’s the main difference between editing and agenting, and why did you decide to make the switch?

AR: I really enjoy the entrepreneurial spirit of agenting. There’s a huge amount of flexibility in what an agent decides to take on, and it’s heavily based on individual sensibilities and gut. An agent is present in most every aspect of publication (from line-editing a rough manuscript to cover consultation and publicity) so it feels impossible to have a boring day.

Then there’s the chance to “discover” breathtaking new books, meet some of the warmest, most passionate people in an industry devoted to something I love, and championing authors through a difficult and unpredictable career. I still enjoy the editing process, but I find agenting more varied and eventful.

WH: What draws you to a fiction book? Non-fiction?

AR: With both, voice is very important to me. There are a lot of aspects of a manuscript that can be fixed through the editing process, but voice seems to be one of those things that you either have or you don’t. If the writing itself is boring, stilted, awkward, unrealistic, or self-conscious I don’t care what it’s about, I can’t read it.

I personally enjoy edgier books with quirky, unique protagonists. I love spunky, fresh narrators that show a different view of the world we see every day. I have a hard time with fantasy with no rooting in the real world.

An engaging voice is crucial in trade non-fiction, and a bizarre topic, new perspective, or unique credibility usually hooks me.

WH: You also represent a fair amount of YA authors. Do you think the YA world is more challenging than the adult world?

AR: The only aspect I find challenging is the misconception that YA is a dumbed-down version of an adult book. The tendency to underestimate what teenagers are capable of reading is especially frustrating. The market for YA, however, has shown to be a thriving genre with tons of exciting new voices.

WH: Who are a few of your favorite authors out there today?

AR: Ugh, I have always struggled with this question! I adore Tana French‘s police procedurals, I absolutely devoured Cory Doctorow’s LITTLE BROTHER over the course of a recent weekend, and currently can’t put down Stieg Larsson‘s bestselling series. Also Sherman Alexie, Tom Robbins, Junot Diaz, and tons more.

WH: What’s your take on the publishing industry today? In dire straits or blooming? Both? Neither?

AR: I think that publishing is economizing just like other businesses are-neither dire straits nor blooming. I’m interested to see where we go with ebooks (Nathan Bransford recently made an interesting post about this), though I personally can’t imagine ever foregoing a physical, bound book for an electronic one. It’s depressing to think about a world without bookstores everywhere, but the people I speak to are just trying to be informed and flexible.

WH: Let’s get into the nitty-gritty: what percentage of authors that you decide to represent come from the unsolicited submissions?

AR: Since I’m just starting to build my list at Wolf Literary, I’m relying a lot on the slush pile at the moment. Unfortunately, it’s inevitable that I’ll start getting roped into mass emailed submissions rather than personalized, researched queries, so that percentage will get a bit grimmer.

WH: How important is the query letter? Do you want any sample pages or does the query make enough of a first impression?

AR: The query letter is indescribably important! We do ask for the first 50 pages of the manuscript, but if the query letter doesn’t exhibit the author’s skill as a writer or the hook of the manuscript, there’s no reason to read beyond that pitch letter. The query letter should be the apex of an author’s writing skill.

WH: What are three things in a query that make you want to read more?

AR: One of my authors used the word “percussive” in his query letter, which was the absolute perfect, most thought out word choice. So:

1)      Clever, elegant word choice
2)      Clear, engaging, succinct prose
3)      Research into agency guidelines and individual tastes

WH: What are three things that let you know this project/writer isn’t for you?

AR: 1)      Lack of professionalism (typos, pink stationary, head shots, scorpions set in acrylic resin…)
2)      No research into how we’d prefer to accept queries or what my interests are
3)      Obsessive emails/phone calls/faxes/smoke signals beyond just “checking in”

WH: What advice can you give aspiring writers out there?

AR: The representation process is very subjective, which makes personalization and research incredibly important. Sending a manuscript to an agent that pointedly doesn’t represent your genre is a waste of everyone’s time. Be patient, be persistent, be positive-just like any other professional relationship, sometimes random timing is everything. (That was unintentionally alliterative.)

WH: Shameless plug alert: do you think WordHustler helps writers successfully get their work out there and into your hands, professionally and effectively?

AR: I’m a huge fan of any vehicle that helps writers and agents find each other.

You heard it here first, Hustlers. Adriann accepts queries via email, which means you can sign up for our brand new Digital Submission System and be able to access Wolf Literary Services’ contact info and track your submission to them, all in one organized place: WordHustler. Sign up today!

We were driving from the airport to the place Ahuimanu, which in Hawaiian means A Gathering of Birds, where there was to be a feast of welcome for my young son. I had brought him back from the Mainland along with my second wife, his stepmother, a woman who had come to hate him.

We drove through a tunnel under Nu’uanu Pali, where in 1790 Kamehameha the Great’s warriors forced Kalanikupule’s warriors over the pali, which means cliff or precipice. Nu’uanu is where that particular pali is.

I started thinking about Hilina Pali, which is over on the Big Island where I live. It’s near Kilauea volcano, and there are feral goats. In a little fenced patch of land about as big as your living room there is a kind of plant called ma’oloa enclosed there against the goats. That little place is where most of the ma’oloa that are alive in the world are hanging on and will continue to hang on if the goats don’t breach the fence and eat them.

At the bottom of Hilina Pali is the place Halape, where back on November 29th, 1975, there was an earthquake and a local tsunami in the night. A man I knew was camping there and the sea took him.

When we came out of the tunnel through Nu’uanu Pali, I thought about warriors leaping, falling, falling onto the roadbed, though in 1790 when they struck, it would have been forest.

I made the left turn and drove past the Japanese cemetery with its famous koi ponds, which are a notable tourist attraction, and then I drove into a residential district near Kaneohe.

I stopped at a traffic signal and I saw a hand-lettered sign taped to the pole. It said “FOR SALE: BABY CLOTHES – ULUA POLES” and I started thinking about that, rather than worrying about bad things that might happen at Ahuimanu, which which is what I had been doing.

Ulua are large strong-fighting ocean fish that you can catch from the shore if you’re willing to perch on rocks and cast out and wait. It is not like surf casting along the Atlantic, where you stand on a sandy beach and heave out over the waves, and sometimes can’t even see past the surf.

 

With ulua fishing you’re up on lava rocks with waves below, and if you aren’t watching and don’t listen carefully you might not notice that the sea has gone silent, which can mean it’s about to rise suddenly and take you.

I wondered about the combination of baby clothes and fishing poles on the sign.

 

I imagined that there was this young man who was new at the father business and a little weary of it, so when his wife said she was going to Honolulu to shop, he said he would take the baby for fresh air. When she drove away he went to their garage and chose a pole, and went to their freezer and got aku belly for bait. He wanted a day on the rocks and a nice ulua for them to eat, but he knew if he said he was going fishing she would never let him take the baby.

He put the car seat beside him on the rocks while he fished, and his son started to cry and he turned to see why and he stopped paying attention.

Oh they rose up and were carried down like the warriors, but more slowly, and they didn’t smash on impact, but sank beneath the surf. The car seat bobbed up, and he tried to get to it, but the waves dashed them against lava and they both died.

And I imagined that now the mother wanted to get rid of everything that reminded her, so she made the sign and was waiting and hoping someone would take the clothes and poles soon and it would be finished.

 

The house at Ahuimanu is tucked up close under the pali. There are no waterfalls when it isn’t raining, but a dozen or more appear when it rains hard. One falls from so high on the pali that wind dissipates the water long before it reaches the valley floor.

My aunt called that one The Crooked Straight and when it floated against the pali she would stop what she was doing and sing from Handel’s Messiah. She had a beautiful voice and a sweet nature, but she had died by the time I saw the sign on my way to Ahuimanu and her house below the waterfalls.

At Ahuimanu my uncle was giving a welcoming speech in Hawaiian when my wife rose up and struck my little boy in front of the guests, because he was not paying attention the way she thought he should have been. I was not quick enough to stop her, but I took my son in my arms to make him safe, and soon after we got back to the Mainland I threw her out.

She went down to North Carolina and then I divorced her. I don’t know where she is now.

Everything she left behind, I sold.


As evening falls, he tells me there is a vein in my forehead that only appears when I am thinking.

I think about that. I wonder if the vein is visible now.

***

I am thinking about the sea.

I have always lived near the sea. The sea has always lived inside me. Its constant throb is the percussion of my heart. The sea has long been my companion, a witness to my life.

My unfathomable familiar.

My lips have opened for kisses while the white sea-spray has covered me like a foamy bridal veil. My heart has been broken to the sound of the breakers; the salty scent, a perfume of grief in my mouth. 

I have buried loved ones on the out-going tide, my tears soaked up by wet sand. Damp ashes on my tongue.

I have drowned myself in love and swallowed great gulps of sorrow as I have given up my dreams and secrets to the swift currents.

I have let the waves carry me.

***

But this night, I am thinking.

This night, I sit under a canopy of stars with an unbroken shoreline at my feet. It is vast and unknowable. I am tiny and insignificant.

I feel the ocean’s pull. I fear the rip, but long for the comfort of the cool depths. I ache for sand between my toes and the numbing cold that warms up my limbs through sheer force of will. I feel the inevitability of the tide. The constant flow, the gush, the soak of blood as it sweeps through my body and I wonder if it has caused my vein to rise.

***

All around me is the quiet earth.

The unsettled sea is the only noise.

The only light is the burning tip of my cigarette and the sharp sting of a falling star.

The night sky is frozen in a falling firework display, the stain of starlight smeared across inky space, captured in a quick blink of a newly opened eye.

This holy canvas draws my breath from me. I can trace the constellations with my eye. There is meaning there, waiting to be deciphered, but I cannot read it.

There is only silence. I breathe it in. 

*** 

There is a lighthouse high on the rocks. It lends me its irregular light. The beam sweeps the dark bay warning passing ships, but I pay it no heed.

For I have long had a talent for shipwrecks.

***

But this night, there is only this:

The sky. The stars. The sea.

The stretching dark.

I am thinking again. I try to feel the vein in my forehead but my mind is filled instead with a canopy of light. The stars have entered my eyes and I am drunk on their milky glow.

I think about the endless love affair of the sea and the sky. The unquenchable thirst of the stars. The longing of the sea to touch, just once, the hem of the horizon. 

One cannot exist without the other. They are locked in an eternal embrace. They are mirrors for each other. The endless ocean reflecting the beauty of the sky. The moon showering light down upon her lover each and every night.

***

In the darkness, he tells me I think too much.

I think about this. I wonder whether my vein has risen. 

I turn back to the dark ocean. The footprints I left there in the afternoon have been washed away. There is no trace of what I left behind.  I have been salvaged by the sea.

The waves have swept away the darkness within and the sky has given me a map of stars to navigate by.

My mind reaches for the past.

I think about the future.

He asks me what I am thinking. I tell him that I can see my life inching towards me, stepping out of the darkness, shimmering and salty. I smile as I tell him I am ready to meet it.


Over at Big Other, Roxane Gay–author, and editor at Pank Magazine–ruffles some feathers with her investigation into author payment among literary markets. That is, the lack thereof. Is exploitation too harsh a word?

At least one commenter seems to think editors are all but demonized by a readership sharing too much overlap with a community of authors wishing for publication from the same venues they’re trying (failing?) to support. It’s a contentious issue, as the comment thread suggests.

This writer has no realistic expectation that he’ll be paid for publication by smaller markets, but maintains fantasies about lucrative book contracts against all better judgment.

Is remuneration contrary to the purity of artistic ambition?


I’ll get right to it. I could barely pee on my own without shooting a stream like a wild hose was out of control on the bathroom floor.

The problem wasn’t me. The hall commode was a cathedral of tile and fixtures with a throne set almost too high for my tippytoes to help reach.

You see, I was an independent young lad. I could clamber out a bedroom window at three years of age and walk through the dark, out to the edge of Candler Avenue in San Jose, California, and sit on the curb with our dog Candy.

 I’d do that: curb sitting. Just pass the time. Just sit there with our overgrown sheltie dog, watching the clouds, watching people pass in the dark, or during the midday, or whenever.

You’d think that dog could have helped me take a proper piss in the toilet.

I had no problem whipping it out for a leak in the backyard like I was on some great adventure in the outback of my dreams.

Hell, I could drench the side of the house and shoot petals off flowers if I had to. Me and the dog—we pissed together on the apple tree. It was fun. I don’t know why she lifted her leg. But she did.

I gladly pissed in the wild. In fact, I could have been on “Survivor” at age three and won. 

Most challenges of my wayward youth were easy obstacles to defeat.

Getting out of the neighbor’s garage after sneaking in. Simple. That was just a waiting game. He left and turned off the lights. I think I just crawled into a really dark place. I popped out when there was light, terrifying everyone like I was a cat scampering from a tin can.

Once I tried to slither out of a canal as torrents pushed me down its muddy banks, determined to drown me. I escaped. I told my mother I fell into a puddle.

I solved the problem of urgency once by running toward home and pooping in my pants. I hid the evidence in my room. I don’t even think the dog ratted me out.

I found creative ways to turn Tinker Toys into bows and arrows and launched them at my brother’s skull. I could have hunted deer.

But that damned toilet.

The bathroom throne was my greatest challenge at about age three. I’m guessing here since my parents are no longer among the living. Three sounds good. It puts me at that challenging height for a youngster trying to sling his tiny dick into position for a squirt into the commode.

I was proud of myself when I reached such fathomable heights and wasn’t shooting the opposite rim, or firing away at the open door.

I remember pushing up the seat and lid. That was always a minor victory when my pants were around my ankles. Yes, that’s how I peed then. There was no sneaking it out through little portholes. The pants went straight to the ankles just like that one rejected American Idol song: “Pants on the ground, pants on the ground…”

And the dick went on the rim. Barely. That could have been a verse in that song. “Dick on the rim, Dick on the rim! Hat turned sideways, dick on the rim!”

The toilet seat fell in slow motion.

I could have moved. But it took so much energy to yank down my pants, get on my tippytoes, and then try not to shoot the dog that was watching.

I couldn’t react. Little kids can’t react. They just watch. I watched.

I watched the toilet seat smash my tiny wiener.

And then I howled in pain. I howled and did some sort of strange tribal dance, because, well, that’s what you do when your wiener gets crushed.

I howled because I had to pee and I was afraid.

I howled for my mommy. She came running in. She held me as I howled, “I want a Band-aid!”

And then she put one on.

I felt glorious.

I’m guessing it fell off somewhere outside.

It was borderline impossible to pry myself out of bed.  I sleep in a ridiculous pile of blankets and pillows spread across an illegally comfortable mattress.  The prospects of coffee and accomplishment normally get me up and moving somewhere before noon on a regular day, but today was tough.  Today it was cold.

Don’t misunderstand; I prefer to sleep in the cold.  I’m that guy.  I keep my AC at home set on sixty-seven year round and I crank the hotel thermostat down when I’m on the road.  I cannot bear to sleep when it’s hot.  Some people can, and I don’t understand them.  Only rarely do I find myself in the charge of these mysterious Heat People; a random friend or relative whose home I’m crashing for the night, a person who lives blissfully in an incubator.  I’m never ungrateful for their hospitality no matter how miserably I get through the night.  I will simply toss and turn in silence, dripping sweat and lying on top of the blankets until morning comes and I can walk outside to cool off under the sweltering Texas summer sun.

Who lives like that?  Maybe these people grew up on a cul-de-sac in southern Hell and maybe their parents made them take naps in the oven as toddlers, but my body chemistry can’t function in that environment.  There should be some sort of compromise so that everyone is comfortable.  For instance, I’ll set the temperature to 70 degrees in your house, and then you can go sleep in the clothes dryer.

Despite my usual love for the cold though, even I have my limits.  I can only handle it as long I have an out.  Mornings are fine because I can crawl out from underneath the covers, turn the heater on, jump in a hot shower, and walk out to a warm room.  When I am put into the constant cold though, I whine like a little girl.  I spent one rebellious January night a decade or so ago camping with a friend of mine in temperatures that dipped down somewhere around Taylor Swift’s age.  It was a horrible night compounded by the realization that the morning wouldn’t bring any respite.  I was one big frozen complaint.  That knowledge has prompted me to buy a zero degree rated sleeping bag in the off chance I’m ever faced with a similar situation.

Last night I pulled that bag out again.  I came home from a gig in Oklahoma to find that the heater in my house had committed suicide.  Not that the winter’s here are insufferable by any means, but the past week has consistently hovered in the forties and the massive windows in my bedroom do very little to help with insulation.  I fell asleep under a mountain of blankets and awoke to see my breath escaping, cloud-like, from my mouth.  I buried myself beneath the covers to combat my fear that I would freeze instantly, like a combination lock sprayed with liquid nitrogen.  Hopefully, I thought to myself, that sort of thing only happens in the movies.

Eventually I talked myself into facing the icy air.  There were certainly solutions waiting for me out there in that frozen, waking world.  I had things to do and I needed to figure out a way to raise the temperature.  I called Home Depot to see if they had a space heater but they informed me that those were “seasonal” down here.  This is Texas and apparently winter already happened here on January 8th.   I missed it.

So now I’m up.  I’m huddled at my desk wearing three t-shirts and a brown hooded sweatshirt that makes me look like a shivering little Jedi or a really tall Jawa.  Feel free to choose whichever Star Wars metaphor makes you feel the happiest.  I am confronted with the ugly reality that I wouldn’t have survived in a pre-technological society.

The American frontier would probably have pushed me somewhere closer to Mexico, where I would have happily fought for independence from Spain in exchange for the promise of more comfortable temperatures.  My ability to get through the day should not ride on whether or not some piece of climate controlling equipment decided to commit seppuku.  If 2012 thrusts us into a post-apocalyptic landscape, I can only hope that I’m truly enough of a forward thinker to have booked myself for a show in Hawaii on December 20.

I first saw Matt Logue’s photographs in an email from Very Short List, (if you aren’t signed up to that service, you should).  There isn’t a whole lot that can be done with photography anymore, now that digital imagery has taken hold of the process. I recently went back to a 35mm film camera after years working with digital.  There’s sharpness with film that is somehow missing from digital, it’s hard to explain, and I’m not trying to be a snob here, just a realist.

Empty LA is a throw back to Ansel Adams. Like that master, Logue is venturing into unknown territory, the empty streets of Los Angeles. It sounds odd to discover a photographer that finds something new to see and say on the streets of earthquake city, where the sun never stops shinning, and it always feels like Friday afternoon.  Logue’s images are large and sprawling, even though I’ve only see a digital book, through a link on his site.  There aren’t any people in these pictures, or cars, in a city that is know for its horizontal mobility, it’s shocking to see the place as just landscape and buildings.

 

Mr. Logue works in the film business and his images of downtown and the cityscape remind me of Michael Mann. I’m convinced Logue has taken pictures from the locations of my favorite movie, Heat. There’s a chrome slickness to these places, a polished glaze, garbage free, and it seems like a town that has forgotten about pollution.   Logue’s hottest pictures are of the city, and the long empty stretches of highway that we only know to be filled with long stretches of cars.  But I think the real gems here are the long shot from the cover, of Los Angeles from above, tinted in blue, and the other smaller shots that pepper the collection.

He must have stopped on his way out of the office one day to photograph a lonely telephone sitting on a dark conference room table, surrounded by leather chairs.  Light from near by window leaks in and throws the rest of the human free landscape into deep shadows, pictures of Hollywood, without its players.

I’ve seen the Los Angeles that is shown in movies, Beverly Hills, the palm trees and beaches, Logue only shows one beach here, and you’ll never forget it.  These pictures remind me of the Parralax View, I know that movie was shot outside L.A., (and has people in it, this is more like a feeling, or a vibe) but it has that thumping pulsing tone, I expect to see Warren Beatty turn the corner at the edge of one of these pictures.  Logue makes my mind wander, and creates inspiration in the viewer with these images.  Not biblical inspiration, but he makes you want to go out and take pictures after you look at his work, which is the best compliment a photographer can get.

Check out this book, and buy it here.


Jason Rice: It’s a rare book that makes me want to start it again as soon as I’ve turned the last page.  To say I’ve fallen madly in love with The Imperfectionists is an understatement.  Over the last few weeks this debut novel has surprised and thrilled me, never left my side, and somehow renewed my faith in the daily newspaper.  I’ve even stopped myself from reading this book so I could make it last longer.

The Imperfectionists, or the people who I assume to be imperfect, are in fact that real gems of this story. Characters like Lloyd Burko, who gets this story off the ground, and becomes a beacon for the entire cast, and someone I looked back to every few chapters.  What makes this story so engrossing is the different narrators Mr. Rachman deftly weaves together to form a larger tapestry (despite the fact that every editor and agent I’ve ever come across has told me that connected stories don’t sell).  Lloyd Burko is a down on his luck reporter living in Paris. He’s desperate for a story, and rifles through his son’s life to find one.  It’s these quiet moments of professional desperation that made me want to climb inside this book, and take up a permanent residence among these men and women.

Tom Rachman was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press stationed in Rome.  A fantastic job  by any stretch of the imagination, and he’s worked for the wonderful International Herald Tribune. When I lived in France in 1992, I read that paper every day of the week.  It’s an absolute must read for any American living abroad.

The Imperfectionists will shock a lot of people, not American Psycho shock, but very much like the moments right after the world realized what a great book Then We Came To the End was, and to be honest, Rachman’s novel is as good as that masterpiece. There’s a moment when Abbey who has the wicked nickname, Accounts Payable, is almost convinced that the man she fired is good enough to sleep with, a moment of sorrow, and pity, hers and the readers, and then it’s gone, but you’re left wondering, and saying to yourself; “God damn this is good shit.”  These individual chapters make up the life of the newspaper, and since it’s a Dial Press book, remind me of http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780385335676 by David Schickler.  It’s a perfect comp, but where Schickler sticks with arrested development, Rachman reaches nearly profound levels of realism through humanity. You’ll fall in love with Ruby Zaga, or the strange Winston Cheung, each person is so close that you can feel their breath on your neck.  In the end the people and the story will blow you away, it’s about a struggling International newspaper and (should be a passé thing to write about, with all this internet talk and electronic book nonsense filling up everyone’s time), it’s people; a sad dog, a rabid reader who is ten years behind on her reading of the paper, and Kathleen, oh Kathleen, she’s so good, so right on and who I think is the most serious character in the book. Shit, it’s all serious, it’s prescient, it’s talking about a medium that you and I take for granted, and I for one buried in the sand years ago as being out of touch. Rachman, in his own fluent and vivid ways shows me just how wrong I was to assume that newspapers are dead. Stop what you’re reading, call your Random House rep and get one of these ARC’s. For those of you not in the business, put it on order at your preferred online retailer.

The coyote is lying on the side of the road. Lazily, softly, as if it is sleeping. But dead—this is obvious. A dead coyote, the color of maple, with thick, lustrous fur that makes it seem pettable and friendly. My tires whiz by its body with one final indignity: the spraying of filthy sleet.

The air outside is frigid. It is early morning, January, and from the gunmetal sky fat snowflakes fall quickly to the earth. I notice how long the coyote’s ear is, splayed backward and open, now quietly filling with snow.

A little further up the road is another coyote, in similar posture. Then 50 yards later, one more. A trio of coyotes, struck down, I imagine, in quick succession. Perhaps they were a family. Perhaps each was running to the aid of its fallen mother or brother. At the thought of this, I almost start to cry.

The snow starts falling even faster now, in a diagonally blowing wing that howls faintly and whips around my car. I slow my old Saab, make sure the lights are on, but the other traffic, I notice, is moving at its usual highway pace of about 90 miles an hour.

I have a baby in the car with me, just two months old. She rides, well-anchored, facing toward the back. I peer at her car seat in my rearview mirror, and my heart stutters. My baby, Muirgen, sees no dead coyotes; she only hears the music on the radio or the soft cadences of my voice. I take her to the art museum where I work. She lies quietly underneath a baby gym or in my arms as I make phone calls. I nurse her and type with one hand.

But I hate to drive anywhere with my baby. I hate to leave the house. Catastrophe and death, I fear, await us, as if we too were coyotes, scrounging for food in the wasteland of winter fields, dodging speeding semis and Jeeps in our quest for a small puddle of water from which to drink.

I can picture clearly the accident that will kill us. It plays in my mind like a film. I feel the steering wheel spin through my helpless hands as the car flies off the road, flips in the air. There is a pause, during which time we hang upside down, wondering, suspended, What is happening? Is this real?

I can almost hear the delicate whisperings of angels as they hover by our impending wreck. But this is not reassuring—instead, it is terrifying—and then angel whispers are drowned out by a crash, massive and final. Glass and metal crush and smash. I scream and reach out for my baby, but we are both strapped in too tightly, unable to escape.

This is the scene that I picture when I drive or even think about getting into the car. There are more scenes, equally horrible.

I picture my child burning alive, myself overcome with smoke, unable to rescue her. I see her in a tiny coffin, being lowered into the ground. I cannot bear to even imagine this horror.

This pervasive sense of doom and dread, the heart palpitations, nausea, the crushing pains in my chest—it is anxiety, I learn. Just one little word for this terror that haunts me. I am simply anxious.

Am I also depressed? I tell the psychiatrist that I don’t think so. Oh, but anxiety goes hand-in-hand with depression, especially post-partum, I am told. I must have PPD—post-partum depressive disorder.

I bristle at this diagnosis. I have read horror stories about PPD-suffering new mothers who lost their minds and smothered their babies. I love my child; I am certainly not sad that she exists, or that I am her mother. I am not crazy. I would never hurt her. In fact, all I can think about is how to keep her safe.

It is, I learn, hormones that are most likely the cause of the problem. I am seriously depleted, running on empty as far as estrogen goes. Stop nursing, I am told. Take Zoloft. Take Paxil. Go on a vacation and leave your baby behind.

This PPD that I am told I have renders me consumed with worry, even during quiet, happy times. I hold my daughter and rock her, read to her, sing. She gives me a radiant, gurgly smile and looking into her chubby face, I feel joy. A nanosecond later, I am sure that we will be savagely murdered by the repairman who is coming to fix our washer—so sure of it that I can imagine exactly how he will corner us in the kitchen with an enormous knife. I will try to flee, but he will catch us and pull us back, stabbing brutally, relentlessly, before we can wriggle out the window.

I picture all of this while sitting on the couch frozen in terror, clutching my baby. Then I have an idea. I steel myself to get up, lock all the doors and post a note saying we had to run out. I huddle on the couch with the baby, hiding, keeping still, until the repairman gets the note and drives away.

Only then can I breathe normally.

I tell my husband about my horrible daydreams, but briefly, and always with a touch of humor. (“I just thought Satan was speaking to me through our child. Ha ha. I think I’ll go lie down on the couch.”)

I don’t want to scare him, but I just want him to understand that I need help and hugs and comfort. This he offers, but because I am not completely honest, he never understands either the depth of my fear or how close I might be to a breakdown.

**

The word “anxiety” is interesting to me. It slides off the tongue and sounds almost elegant, but is derived from the Latin angere, which means “to choke.” Anxiety is a disorder that is sadly commonplace, and, by definition, frustratingly vague.

Anxiety can be either low-level, or “generalized,” or it can manifest itself into full-blown panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, or obsessive-compulsiveness. According to psychiatric literature, anxiety is often not attributable to a real or appropriate threat and can be a symptom of other problems, physical or psychological.

The sort of anxiety I have feels like full-blown panic sometimes, but apparently it is only generalized. There are people much worse off than I am, those who actually pass out from fear, those who cannot ever leave their houses.

After consulting a pharmaceuticals textbook, my university-clinic doctor prescribes low doses of Valium because, she says, “That’s the most cost-effective way to treat this.”

I don’t take the Valium because I am still nursing, and because I need to drive. Instead, I make up excuses not to come in to my part-time job in Cedar Rapids. “My car tire blew out,” I say. “I can’t find my keys.” Oops—couldn’t call in sick (had to e-mail; the coward’s way out) because I misplaced my phones.

I buy life insurance—much more than my father says I need. I want to be sure that my child is cared for, in case the worst should happen. I hope she will remember how much I love her, but I know that if I die before she reaches a certain age, she’ll probably retain no memories of me at all. That doesn’t matter, I tell myself. It is now that matters. Do the best you can for her now. Keep her healthy and safe.

While Muirgen naps, I go online and visit the PPD survival group chat rooms. I see a posting from a woman who, it seems, is just like me. She got pregnant on her honeymoon and now is struggling with both PPD and trying to maintain a good relationship with her husband, who claims he hardly knows her anymore.

I write to her. I say, “It’s so hard to be hit with all of these changes at once—getting married, being pregnant, possibly moving house, having a baby.”

Her husband, like mine, probably had about two weeks to look around and say, “Wow, we’re married…” before being faced with a nauseated, exhausted woman, a woman whose pretty face got puffy, whose nice clothes no longer fit. A fat, tired stranger—and then, suddenly, two strangers, one of whom cries a lot and has stinky diapers.

“Of course it isn’t easy for us; we’re the ones actually experiencing all these things,” I write, “But it’s got to be almost equally weird for these men.”

She writes back that we are kindred spirits, in the same boat, exactly. She tells me that her son is named Vegas. I assume, rather stupidly, that she is Hispanic, but then she explains that her baby is named after Las Vegas, where she honeymooned.

“Good God,” I think, “She named her kid Vegas.” I can’t bring myself to send her another note.

I drop out of the chat rooms. I resist the psychiatrist’s reluctant offer of psychotropic drugs. I decide to handle things on my own, to let my body adjust naturally.

There are some women in this online PPD group who are seriously ill. Their children have been taken from them. They cannot get out of bed. They are hallucinating and could be dangerous.

Some are glad that their mothers or in-laws are taking care of their babies. Some desperately long to get their children back. They all have to wait, though, for the drugs to kick in, for their hormone levels to stabilize. This could take weeks or months.

Meanwhile, their babies are growing fast, sadly apart from their mothers, swaddled and alone with relatives who may be forcing outdated, even harmful baby-care practices on them—feeding the newborns “pablum,” insisting that they only get a bottle every five hours on a strict schedule, that they not be picked up when they cry so as not to “spoil” them.

Some women vent about this. I read their postings but keep silent, feeling grateful, despite my own problems, that I am not in their shoes.

The biological point of anxiety, its reason for existing, is to help us run from danger. But if the danger is all in our minds, well what’s the point of feeling “fight, fright, or flight” in response to that?

I understand that PPD is essentially the result of a chemical imbalance, but it seems like a disorder we should have evolved not to have. Post-partum is a crucial time, a time when we need to be fully present and strong for our babies. As a species, how can we afford to have up to a quarter of all new mothers paralyzed by fear, wracked by tears and hallucinations, hearing demonic voices? What could possibly be the benefit of all this?

Does PPD keep us safer by, in a seemingly sexist, eerily fundamentalist way, keeping us at home? Does the very presence of this disorder spur husbands and relatives to help more with the baby? Or, is PPD just a sick example of natural selection—weeding out the neurotics, the especially paranoid?

**

I am driving home from work, south on the Avenue of Saints from Cedar Rapids to Iowa City. I remember the coyote I saw the previous summer, when I was heavily pregnant but could not yet even imagine how much my life was going to change. That coyote stood in a field that had just been mown, hay tied in neat bales that dotted the landscape. Her ears were back, and she looked scared, as if thinking, “What happened to everything I knew? Where is the long grass that used to hide me?”

Everyone says that coyotes are smart, that they are brave, adaptable hunters who will eat flesh or fruit, whatever they can. But many farmers see coyotes as nuisance animals, predators that will steal and kill their sheep or chickens. Coyotes are, therefore, unpopular guest on the land that they hunt—and the rest of the land is being taken from them and used for new roads, new subdivisions.

The world is changing for coyotes. I realize that the world is changing for me. Still, the coyote adapts, using its innate cleverness to negotiate the changing landscape. Of course, I will need to do the same.

The image of the anxious-looking late summer coyote is imprinted on my brain.

When I see, months later, the dead coyotes, I wonder if she was with them, if her life is over now, if her presence has been savagely erased.

I don’t believe that my life, with all its blessings, is really anything like a coyote’s. But it is the coyote that reminds me how quickly things can change.

 

 

Like so many stories, it began with a drunken promise. My friend Nathan told me he’d found something. “It’s the most amazing thing in the world,” he said.

Naturally I didn’t put too much faith in those words, but I nonetheless looked forward to the day I’d become a part of the secret; the main frustration being that three people in the whole world knew about this “amazing thing” and I wasn’t one of them…

***

One warm summer night we were drinking in a blues bar. There were many familiar faces, but I found myself alone with Nathan, talking about the “amazing thing.”

“It’s a house,” he said. “An abandoned house.”

My excitement died a little. How exciting could a house possibly be? In Dundee, damn near half the buildings were derelict. “You’ve got to see it… It’s beautiful. Not just any house; a big house. Ancient. On the _____ Road, too.”

I’m in my room. Through the thin, rotting trailer walls, I can hear the muffled sound of the television preachers on The 700 Club. I know my parents are in the next room sitting on our mismatched furniture, watching the TV that is on top of a larger TV that broke many years ago, but never got thrown away.