« August 2007 | Main | October 2007 »

September 30, 2007

Jozette's Presentation - Seven Pieces of Severance

Jozette is choosing to present three sections of "Seven Pieces of Severance" by Robert Olen Butler.

Seven Pieces of Severance
Robert Olen Butler

After careful study and due deliberation it is my opinion that the head
remains conscious for one minute and a half after decapitation.
-Dr. Dassy d’Estaing, 1883

In a heightened state of emotion, we speak at the rate of 160 words per
-Dr. Emily Reasoner, A Sourcebook of Speech, 1975

Dioscorus shipmaster, and companion to Paul, beheaded by Roman soldiers who
mistook him for the apostle, 67 A.D.

Sails swell and braces hum overhead, my hand on the tiller night and day
and night again and all the things of the world are beneath my feet now,
all at once, the timber and the cattle and the linen and the glass, the
wine, the wool, ivory and apes, olives and cheese, plums and pears and
pomegranates and ginger, myrrh and incense, alabaster and amber, oysters
and slaves, their dark eyes turning to me awake in the midst of the night
as I hug the coast out of Aden and it’s day now and still I have wind in
the great middle sea and I have woodwork and statuary from Sicily and
papyrus and granite and work and glass from Egypt, corn and fish and hides
from the Black Sea and from Smyrna I have carpets rolled and bound and
stacked in the hold, and passengers, a man and two others who bow to him a
man with a naked head like mine bare to the sky and the wind, there is only
the terrible motionlessness of my house, becalmed, my son barely drawing a
breath, this man touches my son’s head and speaks to his god and my son
lives and the man says leave all these things and I am in a marketplace and
I cry out the name of this man’s god as if into a gale and around me are
figs and linen and vessels of clay

Angry Eyes Apache warrior, beheaded by Mexican troops, 1880 Breechcloth
and moccasins only these things on my body and my head bound by a cloth
band my face and chest and arms stained but I do not know the colors I do
not look, my eyes are fixed on the horizon beyond mesquite and piñon and
stone and I am ready to fight though I have no bow no arrow not even the
rifle I bend to the white man in dark blue, the first to die by my hand,
and I listen for his spirit nearby, his hair the color of flame his face
filled with tiny faded spots painted there perhaps to call upon the stars
his mouth open voiceless my arrow through the center of his chest I put my
hand on the stock of his rifle, still listening but there is nothing no
bird no insect-where are you, my foe?-and the sun is setting and my hands
are empty and I dance, like a woman I dance with mincing steps my elbows
held close against me my face impassive before the fading light, the edge
of the world is the color of old blood, my body dances stealthily all my
flesh trembling to an unheard drum and I am alone in this place, but no,
his spirit whispers he is beside me now, in breechcloth and moccasins, and
we dance barely moving nearly touching I and this white man with hair of

Robert Olen Butler writer, decapitated on the job, 2008 Heedless words but
whispered, they begin as I stand before the guillotine and I am filled with
the scent of motor exhaust and wood fire and fish sauce and jasmine in a
strange country, a good scent, her hand in mine at last, the city that
roars in my dreams is beyond the stucco walls a balcony the Saigon River
the rim of the world bleeding from the setting sun and self-righteousness,
the guillotine in the museum rises above the cannon barrels and rotor
blades and unexploded bombs the blade darkened by the wet air and the
voices begin to speak not in my head not in the place where I think but in
my ear directly in my fingertips a computer screen before me the clatter of
keys like tiny clawed feet running in a wall, come to me little ones nibble
from my hands snuggle into my pockets and curl your naked tails in peace
like these words already fixed and bound and tucked beneath my arm, half a
dozen autographs signed tonight and thanks for buying my book I step into
the elevator and I am alone and the air buzzes in silence and I consult the
scrap of paper in my pocket to where I belong and I push the button and
down the hall there are voices agitated ardent full of yearning and I lean
forward and I stick my head out to listen

September 26, 2007

Sophie's Presentation - The Mesmerist

Sophie will be presenting "The Mesmerist," by Michael Knight. Read it below.


by Michael Knight

Moody boarded the Silver Star bound for DC, where he would hop the Crescent and ride it through the night. There was a dinner theater in Birmingham looking for a mesmerist to open the show, and he had played well there in the past. In the seat opposite him, a girl was reading a fashion magazine. She was wearing a sweatshirt (BOSTON UNIVERSITY CHORAL SOCIETY), and every few seconds she tucked the same wayward strand of hair behind her ear. Moody had a gift for reading people, and in this girl he recognized a sadness, something familiar and close to his heart. He saw it in the slump of her shoulders. He saw it in the hint of wear and tear around her eyes. She was hopeful and afraid. She had been unlucky all her life. This girl would have a broken heart before too long.

"Are you watching me?" she said. "I hate being watched."

She closed the magazine and leveled a glare at Moody. In one motion, he reached into the pocket of his coat, withdrew a penlight, and flicked the beam across her line of sight. He said, "Every muscle in your body is limp now. I am pulling your eyes closed with silken threads." The girl opened her mouth, but instead of speaking, she slumped in her seat. He counted down from ten to one, and when he was finished, she was perfectly asleep. Her hands upturned and pendulous beside her. Her head bobbing as they rocked across a trestle. She looked vaguely surprised.

IN PHILADELPHIA, Moody steered her along the tide of exiting passengers. He bought a pair of tickets in a sleeping berth to Cleveland. While they rolled cross-country in the dark, Moody described the life they would have together. He said she would never be lonely. He told her she would be possessed of grace and charm. “I’m going to count down again,? he said. “This time, when you wake, you will no longer be acquainted with unhappiness.?

MOODY FOUND DAY WORK and they rented in a neighborhood sumptuous with brick and shade. They were happy for a while. Penelope took piano lessons from an elderly woman on the block, Mrs. Berryman, who often stopped Moody on the street and said, “That Penelope of yours is the most confident beginner I’ve ever had. It’s like she knows piano in her bones.? If the weather was right for open windows, Moody could hear her practicing when he walked home at night. He would stand I the yard marveling at the simple bricks and elegant maples and surprise himself with the notion that this was the life he had been looking for all his days.

ONE EVENING, ALREADY within earshot of Penelope’s piano, Moody spotted a stranger peeking in the window. It was fall, leaves chameleoning on their branches. Moody hurried up the street, calling a friendly hello, wondered aloud what the man was doing in his porch. The man smiled in what Moody guessed was meant to be a reassuring way.

“I’m a private investigator,? he said. “I’ve been looking for a girl.? He retrieved a photograph from his briefcase—Penelope with a green ribbon pinned to her shoulder.

“What did she win?? Moody said.

“Second place in the Fairfax County Piano Recital,? he said. ?She did Chopin. Her name’s Penelope.?

Moody slipped the penlight from his pocket, flicked the beam in his practiced manner. He lowered his voice and said, “You have made a mistake. There is no Penelope here.?

“I have made a mistake,? The man repeated. “There is no Penelope here.?

His eyes were glazed, his mouth hanging open. The photograph fluttered from his fingers.

Moody said, “Perhaps she has run off to Honduras. You should go down and have a look.?

“Perhaps she has run off to Honduras,? the man said, “I should o down and have a look.?

Moody watched him stagger up the sidewalk to his car and drive away. He bent and picked up the picture, stood looking at it until Penelope’s music came back to him, a melancholy sound on the fragile air.

AT CHRISTMAS, THEY invited lonely Mrs. Berryman over, and after dinner she sat beside Penelope on the piano bench and they played duets of holiday songs. When she was tired, they bundled Mrs. Berryman into her coat and walked her home. They stood on the curb and watched the snow gathering on the hood of Moody’s car.

Penelope said, “I love how the now muffles and magnifies everything at the same time. My voice sounds so loud right now.?

Moody slipped his arm around her waist, let the deepening silence drift back in behind her words. He kissed the top of Penelope’s head, her hair cold and brittle and dusted with snow.

He said, “You should have worn a hat.?

“I’ll be fine,? she said, “You mother me too much, Moody.?

She leaned her head on his shoulder and drew him against her. Christmas trees shone through parted curtains. The snow sparkled. Moody wondered if their footprints would be covered by morning.

September 25, 2007

Erik's Presentation - "The Black City"

Erik is presenting “The Black City? by Leonardo Alishan.

“The Black City? by Leonardo Alishan

(For Farhad Shakerin)

I cut my lower lip shaving and I was by the gates of the Black City, a city made of black marble, a black city made of marble in the middle of the desert, the closest mine of marble, hundreds of miles away. Strange city. Strange marble city far away from any oasis. Black City my soul called home.

I entered through the gates fully aware that it was my city, mine so intimately that I felt I had planned it, that I had been the city planner as well as every building's architect. I was the marble and the mine. I was the slave who mined the marble and the slave who pulled it through the desert. I was the king of the Black City and its sole visitor. My strange city.
I walked through streets heavy with intimate scents--the scent of my mother's hair, my father's shirt, oranges we shared on a Friday evening, and of hot summer nights filled with Granny's fairy tales. I walked through streets populated with familiar faces--faces I knew from different phases of my life, almost all in white or black. No one seemed to be in a hurry; no one seemed to be going anywhere; yet all were moving. No one spoke.

Silent, scented streets, populated with people who were still alive in the other world, who grew older in the other world, but were all as I had seen them as child, as youth, as man.
Black marble city bordered on one end by a mosque, on its dome a round moon resting; at the other end, a cathedral, the winter sun sitting on its steeple. A street sweeper I recognized from our old neighborhood swept fallen stars like dead leaves, while the arms of the tower clock did not stand still for a moment but moved clockwise and counterclockwise with the rhythm of medieval dancers. This was a black marble city I had built with every passing moment of my life and was still building, if I was still alive; and I was alive though still connected with an umbilical cord to the wet womb of a dead god.

Amidst the black and white crowd I saw a little girl in dazzling colors, dancing and hopping with laughter and joy; and I was delighted to see one so happy in my city, my life. I walked up to her and asked who she was. She said she was the childhood of my wife. "Have you always been so happy," I asked. "I was happy," she said, "but with each passing moment I grow happier." "Do I have anything to do with your joy," I asked. "Yes, you do," she said, "every day that she spends with you is spent in sorrow for the day and in despair for tomorrow; thus, I, her yesterday, grow happier and more radiant in her memory. How wrong you are, on the other side, to think the past cannot be changed." I cried; quietly I cried and turned my face.

I traveled my marble city, my black strange city, with tired feet and pain. Near the mosque, by the other gate, I saw a little boy selling black flowers, a little boy with wrinkles and scars on his face, selling black flowers which I craved. I asked, "How much?" He answered, "They're yours; they've been waiting for a long time." "Who are you?" I asked. "I am your childhood," he said. "But you were so happy; I remember you clearly," I said, "you were so happy." "But now we know better, don't we?" he said. I took the black flowers and dragged myself to the gate.
"I am not king here," I cried out. "No, you're not," said the priest who had baptized and married me, "we have a queen here," and he pointed to a procession of Persian soldiers with whom I had served in the army. They were carrying a golden box-carriage on their shoulders. "Where are they going?" I asked. "They are taking the queen of the Black City to our temple," said the priest, "where she is sacrificed every April." The procession stopped. The queen drew the silk curtains aside. "Hello darling," she said with a sad smile. "Hello Granny," I whispered. The procession moved on, mumbling a familiar prayer in Armenian.

Before stepping out of the gate, I turned for one last look at the boy. He stood there looking at me like an orphan I was leaving behind. "Look what I've done to you," I muttered through my tears. He wiped his eyes with the back of his little hand and said, "Look what they've done to us." I stepped out of the black gate and heard it slam shut behind me. The razor fell. In the mirror, there was an old man, his chin and throat covered with blood.

September 24, 2007

Distant Star

Please do not feel obligated to answer every question! Answer those that resonate with you, and please do ask your own.

Stylistic choices/"voice":

  • What's the effect of his (rather frequent) use of parenthesis? How does it affect the narrator's voice?
  • What's the effect of so many names--unfamiliar to many readers; in any case, Bolano doesn't care if you're familiar with them?
  • Other thoughts on sentence structure, word choice, italics, use of quotes, etc.?

Structural choices:

  • Why does he begin, in the first sentence, by reminding us that in '71 or '72 Salvador Allende was the President of Chile?
  • What is the effect of the very long paragraphs?
  • What moves you forward? What holds your attention?
  • What is he using "poetry" to do? What work is the concept of "poetry" doing in this novella?
  • If there is a point when the novella seems to "drift," or when your attention founders, when exactly is this, and why?
  • What does he gain by embroiling his first-person narrator with a detective in Chapter 8, by inserting him into the course of history/action (rather than making him simply a reporter)?


  • With so many names, how do you know who to focus on? How/when does he use opposites or "counterpointing"? Does that help you keep track of important characters?

Other questions:

  • Bolano mixes real and imagined events in a way that the reader could lose hold of what "really" happened in Chile in the 1970s. What is the effect of layering real and imagined events? Why might you choose to do this in your own work? What are possible pitfalls?
  • If Carlos Wieder was the engine of the story, why doesn't it end at the close of Chapter 7, when Chile forgets him?
  • Why does it end the way it does? Is it a "satisfying" ending? Why, why not?

September 19, 2007

Character: What Is It?

According to the OED:

11. The sum of the moral and mental qualities which distinguish an individual or a race, viewed as a homogeneous whole; the individuality impressed by nature and habit on man or nation; mental or moral constitution.


12. a. Moral qualities strongly developed or strikingly displayed; distinct or distinguished character; character worth speaking of. (For instance, "1735 POPE Ep. Lady 2 Most Women have no Characters at all.")

A few questions:

  • How do Marquez or Joyce establish the verisimilitude--or the feeling of "realness"--in their characters? If it's detail, what sort of detail?

  • Why might an author sometimes choose to have "unreal" or "stock" characters? What function could unreal/stock characters fulfill? Are all great books chock full of real-seeming characters?

  • Does the differentiation of "round vs. flat" character make sense to you? (See Wikipedia.) Dynamic vs. static?

  • How do you know a strong fictional character when you see one? (Beyond, "I just know it when I see it.") What are the hallmarks of a strong fictional character?

  • What sort of story or book requires strong fictional characters? What sort of story might succeed with types or caricatures?

  • What sort of story relies on a "likable" main character/narrator? What sort of story thrives on an unlikable narrator? Let me clarify: I don't mean "should," but if you're trying to write a happily-ever-romance, it might be harder to do with an unlikable narrator, no? Or perhaps it might turn out to be more interesting that way. What books or stories--ones that were well-done or memorable--thrived on an unlikable narrator?

September 17, 2007

Call "Dibs" on a Short-Short Story to Present

If you don't remember your presentation date, you can check it below. Suggestions can be found in the flash fiction books, which I can lend you, or (occasionally) on the Internet. For instance, Jerome Stern's "Morning News." Additional flash-fiction collections are available at Wilson.

September 18
Kellen: "Sweet Sixteen"

September 20
Holly: "1951"

September 25
Erik: "The Black City"

September 27
Sophie: "The Mesmerist"

October 2
Jozette: "Seven Pieces of Severance"

October 4
Lou: "Accident"

October 9

October 11

October 16

October 18

October 23

October 25

October 30

November 6

November 8
Michael and Jason

November 13

November 15

November 20

November 27

November 29
Justin and Tony

December 4

December 6

Holly's Presentation: 1951

The story Holly will present on September 20, "1951," is linked below. It takes just a moment to read.

by Richard Bausch

One catastrophe after another, her father said, meaning her. She knew she wasn’t supposed to hear it. But she was alone in that big drafty church house, with just him and Iris, the maid. He was an Episcopal minister, a widower. Other women came in, one after another, all on approval, though no one ever said anything—Missy was seven, and he expected judgments from her about who he would settle on to be her mother. Terrifying. She lay in the dark at night, dreading the next visit, women looking her over, until she understood that they were nervous around her, and she saw what she could do. Something hardened inside her, and it was beautiful because it made the fear go away. Ladies with a smell of fake flowers about them came to the house. She threw fits, was horrid to them all.

One April evening, Iris was standing on the back stoop, smoking a cigarette. Missy looked at her through the screen door. ''What you gawkin' at, girl?'' Iris said. She laughed as if it wasn't much fun to laugh. She was dark as the spaces between the stars, and in the late light there was almost a blue cast to her brow and hair. ''You know what kind of place you livin' in?''

''Yes. ''

Iris blew smoke. ''You don't know yet.'' She smoked the cigarette and didn't talk for a time, staring at Missy. ''Girl, if he settles on somebody, you gonna be sorry to see me go?''

Missy didn't answer. It was secret. People had a way of saying things to her that she thought she understood, but couldn't be sure of. She was quite precocious. Her mother had been dead since the day she was born. It was Missy's fault. She didn't remember that anyone had said this to her, but she knew it anyway, in her bones.

Iris smiled her white smile, but now Missy saw tears in her eyes. This fascinated her. It was the same feeling as knowing that her daddy was a minister, but walked back and forth sleepless in the sweltering nights. If your heart was peaceful, you didn’t have trouble going to sleep. Iris had said something like that very thing to a friend of hers who stopped by on her way to the Baptist Church. She watched everything, everyone. She saw when her father pushed Iris up against the wall near the front door and put his face on hers. She saw how disturbed they got, pushing against each other. And later she heard Iris talking to her Baptist friend. ''He ain't always thinkin' about the Savior.'' The Baptist friend gasped, then whispered low and fast, sounding upset.

Now Iris tossed the cigarette and shook her head, the tears still running. Missy curtsied without meaning it. ''Child,'' said Iris, ''what you gonna grow up to be and do? You gonna be just like all the rest of them?''

''No,'' Missy said. She was not really sure who the rest of them were.

''Well, you'll miss me until you forget me,'' said Iris, wiping her eyes.

Missy pushed open the screen door and said, ''Hugs.'' It was just to say it.

When Iris went away and swallowed poison and got taken to the hospital, Missy's father didn't sleep for five nights. Peeking from her bedroom door, with the chilly, guilty dark looming behind her, she saw him standing crooked under the hallway light, running his hands through his thick hair. His face was twisted; the shadows made him look like someone else. He was crying.

She didn't cry. And she did not feel afraid. She felt very gigantic and strong. She had caused everything.

September 12, 2007

Kellen's Presentation: Sweet Sixteen

Read the story Kellen has selected, "Sweet Sixteen" by Gary D. Wilson, below. He will present the story, and his questions about it, on September 18.

Sweet Sixteen
By Gary D. Wilson

and never been kissed, she teases whenever she wants to be again, like now, like she’s been doing all evening in my car in front of her house, the window fogged over, Paul Anka crooning, her head on my shoulder, my left arm locked numb against the door, my right around her, aching vaguely, fingers tingling like they’re asleep or frozen, sparks shooting through the ends of them inches above her right breast, but I dare not move or speak for fear I’ll ruin everything, look totally stupid, like some twelve-year-old trying to get through a doorway without running into it and she’ll wish she were with someone else, any one of at least a dozen other guys we both know would give anything to be where I am, doing what I am, her long brown hair smelling of shampoo and fallen leaves and tasting the way I think a girl’s is supposed to as she finger-combs it back from her face and looks at me, eyes half closed, lips searching for mine, which they find, nipping, nibbling, joining, our breaths mingling, mine spilling over the soft bare expanse of her neck she suddenly tucks away-that tickles too much-snuggles deep into the crook of my arm, a long breast-raising sigh that brings strands of mohair sweater to the tips of my fingers which she lifts just in time to kiss one after another, before holding them to her cheek-cold hand, warm heat-and guiding them back too rest, poised perfectly above the swell of her breast, which I know she wants me to touch in the way she-and I, I suppose-imagine a lover would, but she does nothing to make it happen-doesn’t shift up against me, as if chilled, doesn’t lay her hand on top of mine, pressing it gently down-and I do nothing, either, even though the tingle in my fingers has become almost painful again, and I know as sure as anything without quite understanding why, that if not then, never, that once this moment is gone, it can’t be recaptured, re-acted-although perhaps rethought, recreated-and that a time will arrive sooner than we can possibly anticipate when the porch light being turned on at her house will not mean her father thinks she should come in but that he’s died, felled by a heart attack on his way out the door to retrieve the Sunday paper, and that his wife, her mother, will, in a fit of grief, move the family to be closer to her own in Colorado and we will lose contact long before it would have occurred naturally, and she will eventually marry and move to Hawaii, divorce and move to Seattle, where I will write her, asking how she is and will receive no answer, and I’ll wonder for a long while whether she does, or ever has herself wondered.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

  • Where does the motion come from? If the overarching question, as Jamie mentioned, is "why," what propels you through individual scenes/chapters? What questions are you asking yourself at different moments? How does he transition from question to question? When one is satisfied, how is another raised?

  • How would you describe the emotion of the book (the beginning, the middle, and the end)? What sorts of reactions or emotions does the text evoke in you, the reader? When--as Vladimir Nabokov would ask--does your spine tingle? How does he create this effect? Do you see where it comes from, how it's assembled?

  • How does the world of Chronicle of a Death Foretold achieve depth? That is, how does it appear to be a possible world, rather than a world of cardboard cut-outs? How does Marquez achieve verisimilitude and believability? By what mechanisms?

    Minor questions:

  • What is the effect of the repetition of "On the day they were going to kill him..."?
  • What is the effect of waiting until the very end to show the killing?
  • How would the book be different if we knew more about the narrator's life? What is the effect of knowing very little about him?

  • Please ask your own questions below!