Sunday, December 27, 2015

Relax, It's a Lit Roundup

There are so much good literature and literature-related items out there I sometimes die a little inside thinking I'll miss something. And I do, miss something. I miss a lot. And so I die a little.

But still, I do get to a lot of good stuff. Here's some amazing things I've come across lately. Seriously do yourself a favor and follow these links to reading enjoyment. It's like Willy's chocolate factory for the literary cells in your brain.

RACHEL AND BEN - Edward Mullany's "Rachel and Ben" series at Actual Pants is archived at the site. Edward is in a truly real sense fantastic.

HOW TO MEET MARC CHAGALL - One of the most original voices I had never heard of in flash fiction, Anne Elizabeth Weisgerber blew me away with this story.

CONFESSIONS OF A STORY WRITER - Bonnie Jo Campbell's piece up at the Story Prize blog. She's always intriguing.

NEW ETGAR KERET STORY - Electric Literature served up a new story from Etgar Keret recently, a man who is quickly becoming my favorite short story writer still breathing.

And, seriously, the coolest thing I've come across in the last while has to be this project from Mike Meginnis...

THE WORLD ELECTRIC - In Mike's own words: "For the duration of 2016, I will be writing a novel in this public google doc. Anyone on the Internet can edit the document at any time. Anyone can add a chapter, a paragraph, a sentence, or an editorial suggestion. Anyone includes you."

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

My Top Ten Books of 2015

I read far fewer new releases this year, due mostly to the fact that I had less money to spend on books. It happens. Libraries? My local library still mostly moves popular commercial fiction and nonfiction, copies of Sports Illustrated. Things like that. It is what it is.

That said, let me add I'm still reading a few books that would have made this list had I finished them before sharing my top ten. Those are:


Michael Seidlinger's THE STRANGEST

Lincoln Michel's UPRIGHT BEASTS

That said, let's get right to it. Here's my top ten in no particular order:

THE WAY THE WORLD IS by Michael Henson

I knew this collection was said to be strong and that it dealt with a character named Maggie Boylan, a drug addict who Henson gives humanity. I gave it a try and found that it was some of the best work to date that redeemed what would appear to be an "unworthy" person. Henson gets it right. He just does.

GUTSHOT by Amelia Gray

The was the first of Gray's work I read, and it was a good one to start with. Powerful stories that cemented my determination to now read everything written by her. Best moment in the entire collection, for my money was: "...the house, which had begun to smell like a hot scalp." It doesn't really get much better than that.

TRAMPOLINE by Robert Gipe

This novel should be on every "best of" list this year, but it won't be, and that is a flat-out crime. Gipe created the most fully developed character since maybe Sherlock Holmes in 15-year-old Dawn Jewell The language is simple but original and fresh. Damn that is so hard to do. It's not something I really even try with my own work, but I love reading it. And Dawn is a splendid creation. I've read blurbs and reviews comparing her to Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird, Holden Caulfield from Catcher In the Rye, and I get it. But, here's the beautiful part...Dawn is ours. Dawn belongs to us, the mountain people.


Another author on this list - David Joy - recommended this collection and I'm glad he did. I didn't fall in love with every story, but the ones that did hit my heart just right hit bullseye. I mean what's not to like about a collection that includes a story about a TV show host who pawns off a cloned woolly mammoth on his mother? Yes, that's how Pierce rolls. Read it and read it soon.

RIFT by Kathy Fish and Robert Vaughan

I posted a review of this beautiful and sad collection yesterday here at Bent Country. It deserves for you to read my full thoughts. It should immediately become part of the canon of flash fiction. Like, this second.

WALK TILL THE DOGS GET MEAN edited by Adrian Blevins and Karen McElmurray

Full disclosure: An essay of mine was included in this anthology. However, that doesn't mean I'm about to leave it off this list. Too much amazing work. My favorite by far was Pinckney Benedict's graphic comic offering. There's a ton of amazing writers in this one, though, including Dorothy Allison, Chris Offutt, Ann Pancake, Tennessee Jones, Charles Dodd White, and tons of others. Each piece is a play on the forbidden and shows a rare contemporary view of Appalachian literature, something I hope becomes less and less rare as time goes by.

HAINTS STAY by Colin Winnette

Colin Winnette knows how to write a western. And Colin Winnette knows how to write a novel that absolutely no one else could have written. I can't say how much I love the trend of wildly original western novels and stories. The western novel or story is a perfect place for a writer to deal in the light and dark sides of humanity without murdering the idea of entertainment, that ugly old word I love.


I wrote a review of Taylor's newest book this past summer that will eventually be published in American Book Review sometime this coming year. I've been a big fan of Taylor's short fiction and wasn't let down with this novel in seeing his longer work is just as strong. The Kentucky-native spends a great deal of time exploring some familiar tropes present in many Appalachian and Southern novels – the strong pull of home and family, the generational disconnect, and the hardness of both men and women struggling to get by. But in the true sense of exploration, Taylor does so by the very definition of the word, turning over old stones to find fresh dirt and things moving newly beneath.

THE BEST SMALL FICTIONS 2015 edited by Tara L. Masih and Robert Olen Butler

Without question, the most important book published this past year. It's amazing to me how flash fiction can still be seeking legitimacy from the literary community at this point, but I truly believe this anthology may put most of that talk to bed. Nominations are underway now for TBSF 2016 with Stuart Dybek guest editing. I'll have a full review of this stellar book in the next couple weeks up here at Bent Country. Until then, by the book. See the future of flash.


David Joy's debut novel is one that's close to my heart as a writer and an Appalachian. With its main character, Jacob McNeely, Joy has done what I'm always trying to do with my own work: make what seems to be the unlovable lovable, the unlikable likable, the stereotype transformed into a fully realized human being. Joy will make you root for the underdog and then some. He's a true artist and packed with as much talent as anyone writing today.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The World Set Shaking: Kathy Fish and Robert Vaughan's RIFT


by Kathy Fish and Robert Vaughan

Unknown Press

211 pages

Collaborations in literature are difficult on many levels. With Rift, their new collection of flash stories, Kathy Fish and Robert Vaughan – both veterans and esteemed practitioners of the form – make it look easy.

The collection, now available now from Unknown Press, is made up of four sections of about nine to ten stories each from both Fish and Vaughan. The sections are titled in keeping with the collection’s main title and slowly building in scale – Fault, Tremor, Breach, and Cataclysm – with a definition of each word prefacing the section. The structure itself is fantastic, and sets the tone for what’s to come.


“A break in the continuity of a body of rock or of a vein, with dislocation along the plane of the fracture.”

In this section, it’s Fish’s story “Vocabulary” that perhaps speaks most closely to the definition of a fault. A short (one paragraph) glimpse into the heart of a woman’s early fracture as she sleeps with a stranger, saying “I was his paper.” Like much of Fish’s work, this is achieved in a short space that seems perfect in snapshot, just enough withheld and just enough shared.

In duet, Vaughan’s stand-out story in this section is “She Wears Me Like A Coat.” Here, Vaughan does what he does best – showing the reader the edges of a relationship to make us understand its core. It’s more than a clever, literary trick. In Vaughan’s hands, the technique becomes a perfect brushstroke. This, not to mention the story’s first sentence is a genius example for up-and-coming flash fiction writers everywhere: “The first time it was one of those cucumbers wrapped in plastic.”


“A relatively minor seismic shaking or vibrating movement. Tremors often precede larger earthquakes or volcanic eruptions.”

In “The Farms of Ohio Were Replaced by Shopping Malls” Vaughan takes an inside look at a bus hijacking and, in one and a half pages, says more about how a life can change when caught to close to a sort of strange seismic shaking. This was one I read three times in a row, finding something new after each reading.

Fish hits a fine stride early on in this section with the story “No Time for Prairie Dog Town.” The narrator is en route to visit her dying brother, pregnant, and accompanied not by her boyfriend, but a friend from work who, despite certain limitations, seems to fill a much needed void in her life. There’s a lot going on with this story, providing the perfect setting for Fish to show how well she condenses a narrative.


“The act or a result of breaking; break or rupture.”

If condensing a narrative is one of the keys to great flash fiction, certainly tension (as with most other fiction, of course) becomes just as important. In Vaughan’s “The Literary Savant” once again we’re given an expertly honed lesson in the form. In this story, the back and forth between the narrator and his friend is playful in the beginning, much like we find in Hempel’s best stories. By the end, with the final statement from the friend, we see how truly far apart the two are. It’s a clean break.

In “The Possibility of Bears” Fish, again in duet with Vaughan, shows us another couple, this one newly married and vacationing in a wooded area. If Hemingway set the tone for the “pregnancy” story, Fish re-envisions it here. Juxtaposed with the threat of bears (the couple notice claw marks on the cabin door when they arrive) Fish turns threat into protection at the story’s end while also showing a distinct distance between the newlyweds.


“A sudden and violent physical action producing changes in the earth’s surface.”

With this final section, both Fish and Vaughan have built their stories up to a collective frenzy. The final moments will provide that change.

In “Me and You and a Voice Named Boo” Vaughan begins the section with another couple and, this time, not simply a fissure, but a suicide. The desperation of voice in this one is the engine.

Near the end of the this final section with her story “A Proper Party,” Fish shows us what is left after a death, when the hearts of those who loved the lost are still beating, sometimes as part of a routine constructed to stay alive. It’s a heartbreaker.

Overall, this collection (along with the publication of The Best Small Fictions 2015) mark this past year as a year in which a great leap forward took place for the flash fiction form. And the leap couldn’t have come soon enough or with as much power. There is no doubt whatsoever that Rift will quickly be added to the top-tier canon of flash fiction, a book that will be referenced for decades to come.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Picks: Fiction, Poetry, Music, Television, and Film


"The Incorruptibility of Bodies" by Sean H. Doyle

Where: WhiskeyPaper

Why: Everything leads to that last killer sentence as well as I've seen it done in years.


Crimes Against Birds by Denton Loving

Where: Main Street Rag

Why: Because, among many other reasons, there's a poem included in this collection called "A Love Poem About An Exploding Cow."


"Stay Away from the Forest Boy" by Those Poor Bastards

Where: Hellfire Hymns

Why: Jarrid Deaton reminded me of it today. Also, total raw energy.


Where: NBC, Saturdays, 10 p.m. 

Why: Mads Mikklesen can make you forget Anthony Hopkins portrayed Hannibal Lecter.


Where: Netflix

Why: James "The Amazing" Randi is one of the all-time great lovers of truth. This documentary covers his big hits, including uncovering a fraudulent, money worshipping evangelist and, of course, that wacktard Uri Geller and his bullshit spoons.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

"It's not you, it's me." How social media will break our hearts

A friend comes to you and says, "I'm leaving Facebook." Or, more likely, a friend posts on his timeline that he is leaving Facebook.

We've all had this happen. Many of us have did this. I have did this. And each time we had a sound reason. But, I maintain it wasn't needed.

Thing is, if you're going to leave Facebook (insert any other social media network here) then you'll just do it. You'll stop going to it and that'll be it. You may delete your account, you may not. But that's the extent of the decision's complexity.

Proclaiming you're going to do it only strengthens the idea you'll be back. When I see someone do this, I replace it with this statement: "I have burned myself out on Facebook and I need a break." Sometimes I'll replace it with, "Someone pissed me off and I need a break."

I'm nearly forty years old. I've been running at a skin-ripping speed to keep up with social media and technology in general for years now. I have a Facebook account. I have a Twitter account. That's as far as I've made it. There is no question as a writer that if I don't, I'm basically the T-Rex staring straight into the meteor. But it's tiring, and not a little discouraging. And it can be too much, especially when self-worth gets wrapped up with it.

If your self-worth has never taken a hit due to social media, I congratulate you. I think you're lying, but I'll still offer you a half-hearted pat on the back. I'll be polite.

As far as this near forty-year-old can understand, Twitter is either the second most popular or the most popular form of social media. I don't have Snapchat or Instagram or a lot of others, so I could be talking directly out of my ass, but, for the sake of appeasing me, let's say I'm right. This being the case, I would say the most admired quality a Twitter account can possess must be wit and cleverness.

I could be wrong about wit and cleverness, but it's what I see most in my feed. Occasionally, I come across hacked off, half-sentences that seem to promise a kind of insight into the user's life. I say "seem to" only because most of my friends on Twitter are writers and rarely is it the case when a writer writes anything for public consumption that is flatly autobiographical. Even memoirs. They can't help but work the craft when an audience is nearby.

Conversely, for Facebook, it seems sincerity, usually dosed with some general outrage, is the most admired quality a user can offer up. If we're not counting photos and videos of animals and food.

Let's consider outrage on Facebook, because I heard Ryan O' Connell refer to "outrage culture" during Listi's podcast this past week, and that mention gave rise to my thoughts on all of this in the first place.

For Facebook, at least, I truly believe a lot of users simply become wore to the core from worrying about pissing somebody off and have to step away to recharge. Or maybe I'm the only one who feels this way, because I will tell you right now that I walk around on egg shells a lot. I'm an opinionated person and stubborn and often have a hard time holding my tongue.

This can be dangerous on social media.

Facebook users usually want one of two things, in my experience. Unity or war.

O' Connell brought up outrage culture and I saw the whole thing clearly, this constant flow of absolute outrage along news feeds. In the past several weeks, it's jumped from outrage swirling around transgender issues to the confederate flag to gay marriage and two weeks from now it'll be a new topic.

Like O' Connell, I'm not sure why it's this way. But it is, and if we're going to use social media, these are, for me at least, some of the things I have to accept and be okay with. It's not really all that difficult. Use social media, do your thing, whether that's keeping in touch with friends you'd otherwise never see or if it's starting massive online debates that end with unfriending and unfollowing marathons.

The only people who are ever truly going to be able to "quit" social media are people who never really bought into it in the first place. People like my cousin Tom, a 41-year-old and all around great guy who created an account and, like I did with Google Plus for whatever reason, just never went back and checked on it. Seven years Tom has had a Facebook account and has yet to make the first post or like the first profile picture. There are times he forgets what Facebook is, literally. He started and then he quit.

The rest of us? We're in there for better or worse. Some of us (I'm looking squarely in the mirror on this one) will likely fade away, eventually. Age will overtake us, maybe, or social media as we know it will change so completely we won't be able to keep up. See also: Age will overtake us.

But we won't be able to step away from it. We won't actually quit social media.

Social media will quit us.

Social media will say, "It's not you, it's me."

Social media will break our damn hearts.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Gipe Created a Character Who Belongs to Us

So I'm reading Robert Gipe's TRAMPOLINE and it's slow going. Not because the book's not any good. The book is fantastic. That's the thing. Long ago I gave up trying to read as a reader. I read as a writer. I read slowly and watch for the magic. I've been doing that a lot with Gipe's book.

The language is simple but original and fresh. Damn that is so hard to do. It's not something I really even try with my own work, but I love reading it. And Dawn, the main character, is a splendid creation. I've read blurbs and reviews comparing her to Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird, Holden Caulfield from Catcher In the Rye, and I get it. But, here's the beautiful part...Dawn is ours. Dawn belongs to us, the mountain people.

That's all for now. I'm still reading. I'm trying to see how Robert is pulling this magic trick off.

Yes, I googled myself. But look what I found!

I googled myself yesterday. It wasn't the first time and it won't be the last. I have a busy online life and so I like to see what...