Literary Reviews

This is where C-dubs can come to see what a model Literary Review looks like, if they’d like to either raise their grade or just read a darn good piece of writing. Prospective C-dubs can look at these as a preview for what you’ll be doing in the Creative Writing department.

These Literary Reviews are students’ reviews of a literary magazine of their choice. (This tends to be The New Yorker, but you can by all means choose a different one.) They must review three pieces of writing in the magazine, and then respond creatively to each of these pieces.

————

By Olivia Alegria (Class of 2014):

The New Yorker: October 31, 2011

     The New Yorker is a literary magazine that is published weekly. Its subject matter generally includes political opinions, creative writing in the forms of poetry and prose, news articles, comics, essays, reviews, and listings for events. The magazine is directed toward a liberal, political, artistic and adult demographic.

“The Tenth of December” by George Saunders is a surreal short story that illustrates a snowy day from the perspective of two different people, each struggling with survival in the cold, winter wilderness. Initially, it is written in a very abstract style. The flow of the writing is reminiscent of a stream of consciousness, shifting from the perspective of a young, adventurous boy to that of an old suicidal man, each with more personalities within him. The boy imagines that he is adventuring with a girl he knows, and the man imagines the voices of Dad and Kip who advise him. Each of these characters serves a purpose in uncovering the motives and emotional states of the two people.

The language is soaked with symbolism and meaning, though in the beginning one may find it difficult to follow due to the way it jumps around and shifts attention. For example, near the beginning the boy goes from thinking about the words of an imaginary beaver who he believes has captured his friend to a memory of finding a dying raccoon but being too afraid of it to help it. Many of the most powerful phrases in the piece involve switched or substituted words, such as: “Farther from father. Stepfarther.” There is much to interpret about the character and his past from the quote, though it is only one phrase in a vast story of tangled symbols.

While it does seem scattered at the beginning, the story has a method of pulling the reader in. Once one can acclimate to the stream of consciousness and to the strangeness of the events, the writing takes on a more lifelike quality. The construction of the piece echoes the panic of imminent danger, then the relief and confusion at being saved. The choppiness of ideas gives the piece an almost out-of-breath character, shown in subconscious phrases such as: “I will fight no more forever. Concentrate on the beauty of the pond…” Overall, this piece is difficult to be drawn into, but once the reader adjusts to its oddness, there is much to find in it.

“The Bars” by D. Nurkse is a poem about the differences between childhood and adulthood, as observed through the worth of the freedom of childhood and adolescence as opposed to the worth of the ability to marry and to drink in bars as an adult. There is some symbolism in this piece, shown in the repetition of the idea that beer and the adulthood that comes with it is tasteless and unfortunate; “… A Bud so cold/it had no taste, it stung my hand…” and the mentions of a globe and of a red balloon, symbols for childhood adventure and possibilities; “… The Schlitz globe revolved so slowly,/disclosing Africa, Asia, Antarctica/… until I was a child, they would not serve me,/they handed me a red hissing balloon/but for spite I let it go…”

“The Bars” is a fairly straightforward poem, narrating its point cleanly and concretely with occasionally exceptional images: “…my wife’s delicate head/emerged in her high window and retreated/like a snail tucked into a luminous shell…” However, the majority of this poem is unremarkable, its messages very easily conveyed to the reader. It does not pose much of a challenge to the reader and is not very engaging.

“Brave New World: Mission Control” is an article by Andrew Marantz about Vlad Teichberg, the leader of the Global Revolution and organizer of the various occupation movements currently happening in the United States. Marantz shows from the beginning of the article a keen eye for the details of this man’s life. He makes sure to note upon small things to display for the reader the character of Teichberg, such as his lighter (“…he lit a cigarette with an American-flag lighter.”); the words written as an afterthought on a planning whiteboard in the Global Revolution headquarters (“‘These are good problems to have.’”); the description of the poverty that the organization must struggle with (“Teichberg and his cohorts buy cheap used computers on the internet, fix them up, and send them to occupations around the country.”); and the discussion of when Teichberg believes that his baby was conceived (“On the second night of the Zuccotti Park occupation, the couple camped there in a tent. ‘I assume we conceived then, because the baby is due on June 17th,’ Teichberg said.”). These details worked together with Teichberg’s words during the interview about his past and his goals to create an image of the man. The inclusion of such details into the writing adds a new dimension to a figure whose voiced opinions we may only understand through reading or hearing them. A person cannot be fully understood through their words, so the detailed writing of this piece helps to create a fuller picture, one that gives a more personal view of the character of this man. This article is successful in illustrating effortlessly the life of Teichberg, and his spirit and his followers’ spirits toward the occupation movements currently going on around the country.

Creative Responses:

“The Tenth of December” by George Saunders

Flashing back to. Letting loose of.
The pavement was so hot it fried a bird, a sparrow with broken wings that cracked, a feather-bag beside the street. He’d fallen but that wasn’t what killed him, what would be killed him.
Killing him.
He stumbled slowly but it felt quick to him, his shaking bird feet planted on the concrete. He felt slow. He felt weighty.
Heavy, not weighty.
He was passed by running. Ground shaken, but only for him and the sizzling worms. The runner hot, the runner heavier than he remembered he was. Feet planted but he pulled them up, snapped the roots, snapped tendons. He wore black clothes, blacker for the sun. He soaked it up but it did not help him to fly as it flew.
The pavement was hardening, cracking. The runner passed the bird, he saw it and he thought Poor bird couldn’t keep running.
Poor bird could never have run.

“The Bars” by D. Nurkse

I tell you I care, my dear
You’re dear,
And I care.
I ring doorbells for you,
I forget my keys for you,

I don’t make it easy for you.

It’s all for
You,
You in your nightgown and
Painted toes.
When did you start
Painting your toes?
When did the hall closet begin to fill
With deep reds
And cream whites,
And clear bottles
To cover up what?

Dear I heard from our neighbor
You brought home a cat
You’ve named him?
Samuel, a fine name for a cat.
I couldn’t have picked a better one
Myself.

“Brave New World: Mission Control” by Andrew Marantz

You’re right because there must be
Some god who agrees,
And you’re right because
You’re everyone and
You’re right because

You’re the woman I saw at a newsstand today,
Curled black hair in a bun,
Curled black hair on the president’s head.
More facial hair than I remembered on you and on him
On Hitler and you
Hitler and him
She thought she was right she wore
A net on her hair,
Straining the liquid black of its strands back,
Retaining it from bursting in the air.
Her eyes were beady but
I imagined that.

I said “These are good problems to have.”
And so did the straining woman
But I still don’t know when she started hating me

————

By Abigail Schott-Rosenfield (Class of 2014):

The New Yorker: October 31, 2011

The New Yorker is a magazine that contains fiction, nonfiction, reviews, cartoons, events, and poetry about many different subjects. It is published once a week. It is aimed towards intellectual, liberal adults who are interested in politics, art, literature, and culture. The theme of the October 31 issue is Halloween.

“Night Thoughts” by Dan Chiasson is an article on the poetry of Tomas Tranströmer, this year’s Nobel laureate. The inexcusably irrelevant opening skews the entire article. The first paragraph explains that Bob Dylan was “the odds-on favorite to win the Nobel Prize in Literature this year,” saying that he is “more deserving of this prize than countless pseudo-notables who have won it in the past.” This poses an obvious question: What makes Tranströmer even more deserving? But although he lavishly praises Tranströmer’s poetry, Chiasson never answers his own implied question. He never mentions Dylan again, and the reader is left hanging. Other than this, the article is thoughtful and informative. Chiasson gracefully integrates Tranströmer’s life and poetry: “As an adolescent, [Tranströmer] was afflicted by terrors: faces swam in the wallpaper, the walls ticked…he conjures visions like those in a later poem, ‘The Gallery’…few poets have made so much of spooking themselves, which must be a method of keeping those demons at bay.” He makes several convincing points about Tranströmer’s work: “The loneliness in the early poems was an atmosphere as well as a practical aesthetic strategy: we see things more vividly when they are surrounded by white space.” But the article, at two pages, is too short for the reader to forget the distracting, unanswered questions the opening raises and be drawn into a discussion of Tranströmer’s life and work.

“Till It Finishes What It Does” by Brenda Hillman is a short poem about a father who has just gotten a heart transplant. It is undecipherable, and too bumbling to be worth deciphering. The first sentence is a stilted version of a dully broad, overused question: “Where is the meaning, the old man asked.” Hillman might have redeemed herself had she showed where the meaning was, but she does not. She hints at it—“the tiny valve of the pig beat inside/our father’s heart…like meaning & its tributaries,/nothingness & art…”—but she never fully explains herself. Perhaps she is saying that meaning lies not in the fact that her father now has a pig’s heart, but in the blood, the life force going through him (“The animal…is not the decoration you sought;/its beauty runs without your will./It drives the mystical heart”). But her imagery is either so arbitrary that it obscures any possible meaning—“The cactus wren is such a good packer”—or so tacky that it staves the reader off: “he lay/on his lifebed…”. The reader is left only with ambiguity.

“Tenth of December” by George Saunders is a short story about a boy and an old man who save themselves by saving each other. It is a very rich story. It is full of details that seem to come straight from real life: “Painting the pellet gun white had been a no. That was a gift from Aunt Chloe. Every time she came over he had to haul it out so she could make a big stink about the woodgrain.” Its abundant imagery is crisp and inventive: “…some treasured childhood memories: a mob of koi in the willow shade at Gage Park, say, Gram searching in her Wrigley’s-smelling purse for a tissue…” Imagery and detail combine to make character descriptions realistic and fresh: “…he was…the guy who used to put bananas in the freezer, then crack them on the counter and pour chocolate over the broken chunks, the guy who’d once stood outside a window in a rainstorm to see how Jodi was faring…” Saunders makes space for such richness by wasting no time in explanation—the reader is dropped straight into the internal monologues of the main characters. The monologues themselves are also concise, written in a short-sentenced style that moves as quickly as good dialogue: “Duck thermometer read ten. And that was without windchill. That made it real. That made it fun.” Often the language is pleasurable simply because it sounds good: “This was just their methodology. His aplomb threw them loops. He knew that. And revelled it.” The imagery and detail in this story are plentiful, but nothing is extraneous.

Creative Responses:

“Night Thoughts” by Dan Chiasson

In my dream, there was a man
Stranded on a rock near the dead cliff.
He took off his shoes and took off,
Out of sight, into the sea.

Somehow I followed him.
He burrowed into the sand as if it accepted him,
His breath bubbled up;
His clothes lifting like a pauper’s in the wind.
Untouchable: I had to rise,
Leaving the fish-man behind.

I climbed the wooden stair,
Taking the rope let down to me.
At the top, they took me in.

“Till It Finishes What It Does” by Brenda Hillman

The icicles had been blown down by a faceless Chinook;
Light, different from time,
Killed the last few chunks.
Pastoral time:
Like a cat in its own territory,
I led myself through it.
The shattered winter joked with the sun,
Pooling itself at its feet.

“Tenth of December” by George Saunders

Over the years,
The birds gave us their nests—
Not in springtime, in fall,
When the bareness let us see them through the branches.
We took them home as if they themselves were the eggs.
In the glass cabinet, they are visible all year round.

Silently, they sit
Like minions awaiting an order.
Or like women remembering.

By Midori Chen (Class of 2014):

Deconstruction

The New Yorker is a weekly literary magazine comprised of poetry, prose, fiction, and articles, often bound with an underlying theme. The January 31, 2011 issue covers the topic of deconstruction– how to take a familiar idea and completely tear it apart such that the results in the end are practically unrecognizable.

“Axis” by Alice Munro was supposed to be a deconstruction of the typical “the boyfriend of one of two best friends falls for the other one” story, where Grace and Avie are college friends and one day, Royce, Grace’s boyfriend, sees Avie on a trip to Grace’s house and planned to ask Avie out on his way back. However, after years of refusing to have sex with Royce, Grace gives in during this visit, and her mother walks in on them. Infuriated, Royce storms out and doesn’t see Grace or Avie again for fifty years. Munro failed to properly deconstruct the familiar plot by giving attention to all the wrong places in the plot. For example, the first part of the story was a backstory of  Grace and Avie’s time in college, setting up the best friend relationship that would be strained when Royce falls in love with Avie. However, instead of writing about Grace and Avie’s relationship, the girls aren’t mentioned in relation to one another again. Also, the majority of the story is dedicated to Grace and Royce’s “falling out,” which also revealed an issue with characterization, as Royce was first depicted as someone who feared to “get into more trouble with Grace than he could even contemplate,” then as an angry, misogynistic character reminiscent of the stereotypical jock that walks out on Grace because her mother walked in on them having sex. Then, on his way down from Grace’s house, Royce sees the Niagara Escarpment, falls in love with geology, and returns to college for a degree. The timeline is scrambled, beginning the piece with “fifty years ago,” then jumping to the summer when Grace drops out of college, then to Avie’s first pregnancy, then Avie and Royce’s meeting on the train after Avie’s had six children, then back to Avie’s first pregnancy with no sense or reason. The reader is left with fragments of relationships, blurred lines between people’s lives, and no cohesive to make them stick to each other.

“Another Day in this Here Cosmos” by Maureen N. McLane is yet another freeform poem about the relation between nature and man, where man is the bad guy, bringing science and “unnatural” things into nature, asking that man should “unplug computers and commuters” and just live with nature as is. At least, this is the idea of the first stanza. The rest is disconnected imagery of obese people “in a land fat with rape,” The Faery Queen being a “glam tranny,” and how “the sheep don’t care.” The phrase “A park’s a way to keep what’s gone enclosed forever” occurs twice as an attempt to bring the poem back around, but ultimately fails due to the clash of incoherent messages and vague imagery. However, the idea of a anti-man is deconstructed in a shockingly coherent stanza: “To everything alive, we’re kin: Eat or be eaten.” It was inquisitive and casts man as nature, instead of against it, which completely deconstructs the idea of the poem. Had McLane continued with what she had in that stanza, instead of trying to save her poem by supposedly deep and introspective repetition, the poem would have been a far more interesting read.

The theme of deconstruction can also be found on the cover of this issue, which is black and various shades of dark orange, depicting a cityscape that is labeled with what everything is– Billboard across a billboard, Architecture across a jagged building, etc. The idea of a picture is that it shows something that cannot be expressed in any other way, but instead, this cover invokes words and labels everything with hardly any reliance on visual art, thus deconstructing the idea of a picture.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s article about Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua, titled “America’s Top Parent,” is supposed to be an “expository piece on what’s behind the ‘Tiger Mother’ craze,” but contains much obviously biased information. The article begins quoting Chua’s book of how Chua enforced strict rules upon her two daughters, “which included: no sleepovers, no playdates, no grade lower than an A on report cards, no choosing your own extracurricular activities, and no ranking lower than Number 1 in any subject.” Then, it goes on to claim that Chua differentiated between “Chinese mothers,” who behave like she does, and “Western mothers,” who are, in Kolbert’s words, “losers, but in a loose sense of the term.” This introduction already casts the book in a bad light, and the piece goes on in the same way, such as presenting the “rise of the East” as a depraved attempt at power in a series of headlines (“China Drawing High-Tech Research From U.S.”), and remarking upon how despite the high grades Shanghai students received in an international student assessment, “it’s sad that they are so beaten down that they can’t appreciate their own accomplishments. The article also contains an abundance of comments from enraged “Western” parents about how Chua smothered her children’s natural creativity and form of intelligence, revealing Kolbert’s own opinion on the subject matter, despite her “neutral stance in the proceedings.” Kolbert does, however, forgo her “unbiased stance” by stating that she thinks Chua’s concept of a memoir– which is what Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is supposed to be– is wrong, and the book came out like a “How To” guide, and that is the only piece of undisguised opinion in the article.

Response to “Axis”

They were on their way home from the beach, the setting California sun visible for once, though just barely, behind a generous smear of clouds that extended as wide as the ocean they were leisurely driving along. It put the driver, James, into a daring sort of mood, one that made him want to go places. He glanced at his passengers– Aaron sitting beside him, Blake and Terrence in the back. They were draped across their seats, lulled to sleep by the pavement beneath their wheels that swept their car forward in a smooth and seemingly unending ride. James was the only one whose eyes were wide open, looking ahead at the road as he watched for the dirt road where he was supposed to turn off, the one that led to their spot, hidden from prying, judging eyes. James watched for their escape.

Everyone had reason to be here.

Aaron, whose head leaned comfortably into his seat belt, was here for the sex. He liked the feel of hard muscles and smooth planes beneath his fingers and the baritone grunts he would hum to. Aaron had an actor for a girlfriend, which meant she was always busy, and Aaron slept alone more frequently than not. But luckily, they both loved each other enough to allow for an open relationship and a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy– though Aaron suspected that was more for her benefit than his– and Aaron took full advantage of that.

Blake was here for family, which he remembered as cinnamon-y and toasty warm as a child, and now that they’ve moved to LA, a source of happiness he hadn’t been able to experience in a long time. He remembered, as his bare head thumped along the window, his older brothers in their hockey gear, tackling each other into the Minnesota snow; his mother making Thanksgiving dinner with chicken because nobody in the family liked turkey much. Luckily, he was in California with his three best friends, practically-brothers he had grown up with. They were perfect, because they were as good as family, but knew none of the intrusively embarrassing stuff about Blake.

Terrence was here for rest from his massive, IQ-of-187 brain, because what kind of teenage boy could stand being a genius and stay sane for any extended period of time? Rocks and evergreen trees blurred across his window, and Terrence’s eyelids flutter close, because here, in the Toyota Camry the four invested in buying when James’s learner’s permit turned into a legitimate license, was where he knew he didn’t have to be calculating. He was here because he didn’t want to know all the possibilities their situation could morph into– he could trust his friends to take care of that for him.

James… James was here for the others. James didn’t have a girlfriend, though he wasn’t without his group of die-hard fangirls that bend over backwards at his will. He didn’t have much of a family, with a father that was the head of a cosmetics company and a mother that divorced James’s father for someone thirteen years younger than both of them. He didn’t have a genius mind he couldn’t get away from. No, James was simply here because the other three were, and while they were certainly very individual people, they still did most things together. Besides, it was fun– at least, none of them were terrible at it. The overwhelming sensation was astounding, in both physical and emotional terms. Hands and heat were usually everywhere, reaching and clenching in the enclosed space of trust in their little Camry, and James liked that they could all let go for once, instead of being dragged every which way by life. James liked that they could all lie in a heap on slightly itchy seats after and watch the skies turn from gray to a dark blue, from clouds to the ocean.

Pebbles were beginning to grind beneath their wheels, and Blake stuck a foot up front to brush gently against James’s elbow; that was how James knew they were close. He glanced sideways, and saw that Aaron was wide awake now, knuckles tapping an impatient rhythm against the window. James grinned as he caught sight of the dirt road, the stretch of beach they could stand at the edge of and feel like they were about to fall off the world. Terrence met his eyes through the rearview mirror as James asked, “You guys ready?”

They were.

Response to “Another Day in this Here Cosmos”

The ground hits you running, swiping your feet out from under you, sending you careening backwards, arms pinwheeling for balance, because it is tired of your heavy, trampling steps bouncing across its top– irritatingly minute and itchy, like a single strand of hair brushing down the side of your arm. The ground is tired and running away from you, and you really have no time to ask questions. You can only hop hurriedly to your feet and gather the pavement up like a skirt around you, because in its haste, the ground had left the pavement behind, too. It moves beneath you unendingly, and at first you trip over every pebble and crack, until you finally get the hang of it, the ground a constant force like gravity pulling you forward, and you learn it becomes easier if you drape one end your pavement skirt to the ground, so that when the ground runs forward, the pavement stretches out behind it, curling in the wind and laying itself down flat against the ground. The movement spins you round, as you unfold the pavement from around your middle, and when you see the end of the ground and pavement in sight, you react on instinct, hopping up over the last wave of fluttering pavement, rumbling ground, so that when you land solid on your feet, nothing is moving beside you, and you fall back as your feet carry you forward. After you’ve regained your balance, you stand up by the pavement, feeling like you teetered on the edge of the world. You look at the ground, sunk and still in dejection. You look at the pavement, spread from your hands and contently smothering the ground with its sticky, permanent black tar love. You look, because when the ground was running, you didn’t have to run, and now that you’ve slain the ground so that it lies so still beneath your feet–

You hit the ground running.

Response to “America’s Top Parent”

When they ask you how your kids all got to be so successful, you say you beat the rules into us. They laugh, you smile, and we nod as if you’re kidding.

Dad, you always say that this is the only way, that kids don’t listen unless you pick up a ruler, a clothes hanger, and order us to put our hands out. Our palms still sting on cold nights when the memory of pain bursting like fire beneath our skin surfaces, as we grip our pencils to study late into the night. You don’t trust us, have never trusted us– you have kept the leash as short as possible, so that our heads are right beside your fist, right within range for punishments, should we do something unseemly. We remember, dad, the time at the night market– one of us was eyeing something cheap and inconsequential, when you delivered a slap so hard, all of us felt it. Don’t you dare even think about it, you warned coldly, and we wondered what you were talking about. Don’t think about stealing it? Don’t think about buying it? Don’t think about owning something you don’t have a use for?

What about you, dad? What you have– notoriety for raising amazing children– do you have a use for it? What good does it do you that we grow up to be doctors and lawyers? Do you want us to heal you when something goes wrong with your body? Do you want us to fix you when something goes wrong with the law? See, for that, we have to care enough to want to heal and fix you, and it’s not that we don’t care– you are our father, after all. It’s more like you’ve never taught us to care. See dad, whenever the sting of wire against our palms makes itself known at night, we don’t look back and think about what we’ve achieved. No, we look back and think about what we’ve missed, because you’ve never given us a chance, never let our leashes go long enough to feel the grass beneath our paws, our feet for ourselves. We are stuck on the past, looking back and wanting. You are stuck on the future, looking forwards and wanting. None of us really know what we want, though, so we can only all smile and nod, clench our palms tight together, and pretend it’s all just a joke.

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