The People in Our Stories: Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking

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Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade is an examination of death and life through Lynch’s experiences as a funeral director. The book is structured as a collection of essays which range from a meditation on toilets to embalming his father to an essay against assisted suicide to instructions for Lynch’s own funeral. Throughout the book, Lynch asserts that funerals and all the things that people do surrounding death are really for the living.

The book is strongest when Lynch goes deeply into his own personal experiences. The experience of actually embalming his father and sorting out his own father’s funeral is a poignant one, which resonates deeply with the reader. Likewise, Lynch’s instructions for his own funeral, in which Lynch tells us “It’s yours to do – my funeral – not mine” (199), acts as a parting gift from Lynch, a reminder to be good to each other and that the details of the funeral – in February on a cold day, with no party – are really not the dead’s concern. It is also strong when it is being most straightforward – describing the processes surrounding death or the details that the living don’t think about. The route to the cemetery and why this matters, for instance, gives the reader a lot to think about in terms of how we think about death and its relationship to life and ourselves as individuals.

The book strives to look at the acts and ideas surrounding death in order to come to greater insights about life. This is a very ambitious goal and, unfortunately, many of the essays in this book fall short of that. The topic of death is so deep and meaningful and is ripe for insight and universal truths, especially considering the level of knowledge that Lynch has on the subject. I was so ready to love this book. However, instead of sticking to personal experiences and embracing the questions surrounding life and death, Lynch nudges his essays toward the pulpit. Some of the best books leave their readers with questions to ponder and things to ruminate on. Lynch is not shy about answering the questions he brings up.

Lynch takes the tone of a curmudgeonly old man as he bemoans kids these days and their technology and the way that they think about death. Instead of allowing the reader to come to the insight about how and why old ways were important, Lynch jumps straight to insulting possibly young readers by attacking the way things are done nowadays. He uses an incredible amount of “we” and “you” phrases assuming that his reader is on the same page with him. This reader certainly wasn’t and so these turns of phrase became incredibly alienating.

It was difficult not to question Lynch’s uses of other people’s names and stories in the book. The death of a loved one is an incredibly sensitive and intimate thing. Throughout the essays, Lynch tells the frightful details of the deaths that he’s undertaken, sometimes naming names and often giving enough detail to know who he must be writing about. I found myself wondering time and again if he had permission to write about people in this way.

It was especially egregious in his essay Uncle Eddie, Inc. in which he uses the gory details of a grizzly suicide to begin a rant against assisted suicide and abortion. This is, for me, was the point at which Lynch really lost me as a reader. He gives the details of the widow, who was suspected of having an affair, waking up to the spray of her husband’s blood covering her. He gives plenty of detail for the townspeople to know who he is writing about, but seems unsympathetic toward the widow, who he seems to think must have had it coming anyway. He uses this messiness to assert that assisted suicides should not be legal, because they, like abortions, are humans trying to play god. Lynch seems to think that it is fine for humans to play god by extending life, for he’s not against medication, but not shortening it. It’s hard for me not to commiserate with the widow in this story, to think of the way it would feel reading the details of her husband’s death for all the world to know, these details being used for a political essay, and then to even possibly wish that assisted suicide had been an option for the husband, instead of the terrible way that things had gone. Whether or not you agree with Lynch’s stance, the way it is written about feels off. It is hard to imagine that Lynch had permission to talk about this death in that way and for those purposes. It made him a questionable narrator, for sure.

There are moments in the book where Lynch certainly hits his mark, where the details and meaning that he makes about death and funerals give the reader new insights about life. However, these moments are so overshadowed with Lynch’s politics, his arguments and overexplaining, and the way that it feels like he’s using people that they lose their poignancy. This book is definitely a lesson in thinking about the assumptions that we make about our readers and as well as a lesson in the ways that we treat people as subjects.

 

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.

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Magical Memoir: Waiting for Snow in Havana by Carlos Eire

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Carlos Eire’s Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy is a strange gem of a memoir. It recounts the story of his childhood in Havana, during the transition of the country to a communism and the effects of this transition on Eire and his family, culminating in his being shipped out of the country without his parents, to be orphaned in the U.S. This memoir is interesting and magical for a number of reasons. The reader knows from the start of the book what the outcome will be – the dustcover tells young Carlos’ fate. However, the genius of the book is in the way that Eire tells the story.

The book opens on the day that Batista is overthrown, as Eire says, “the world changed as I slept.” Right from the outset, we know that this is a different kind of memoir, one filled with whimsy and magic. On the very first page, we learn that Eire’s father believes that he was Louis XVI in a past life and that his mother was Marie Antoinette. For the rest of the book, Eire uses this interesting tidbit to extrapolate meaning and draw conclusions about what his parents might have thought and felt during this tumultuous time. He refers to them more often by these names than by their real names and this allows him more room to paint them as characters as well as give him distance from his relationships with them. In so doing, Eire gives himself the space necessary to examine people close to him without too much fear of spilling family secrets or offending.

This magical start to the book continues, as the metaphors grow and shift. There are thematic tropes that come up again and again, as if they are haunting Eire’s childhood. Lizards, Immanuel Kant, American movies, and Jesus’ eyes pop up in the strangest places, and yet they hold the narrative together. The repetition of these images gives the readers a touchstone to hold on to and ground them as Eire describes a world that is spinning out of control.

Eire’s point of view as a child helps as well. For much of the book, we are getting the perspective of young Carlos, seeing his parents as he saw them, seeing Cuba as he saw them. This gives him an incredible amount of leeway in terms of how factually accurate he must be. From the prologue, it is clear that Eire is writing from his memories. These are his own personal experiences and the way that he saw things as a child. Eire makes it clear that we are dealing with personal experience set in history, dealing with memories which can be fallible and malleable and may not match the history books or memories of others.

This emphasis on personal experience also allows Eire to take some very strong political stances. Even if the reader does not agree with Eire’s ideas about the Cuban Revolution, his individual experiences cannot be argued with. We see in very close detail the repercussions of historical events on his family and on him. He makes a very large, well-documented historical event into a personal life event. Interestingly, looking at the revolution from a child’s perspective gives us a view that feels somehow pure or untarnished because this child’s view does not have the historical or political context surrounding it. The reader experiences just the effects of the events. In this way, the reader is sympathetic to Eire’s political views because it is clear where they came from and how they developed.

The most interesting part of Waiting for Snow in Havana is the structure. The narrative itself is far from linear. The reader begins the book already knowing the end. However, Eire pulls us along quickly with his use of foreshadowing. He often mentions things that he promises to tell us more about later. The book moves from the day that Batista is overthrown to the day that Eire boards the plane to the U.S. However, the movement in between is not chronological. The book works like a memory itself, associative, repetitive, slippery. Part of what Eire is writing about is a different way of seeing the world, the way that growing up in Cuba shaped his view of reality, and the structure of the book mirrors this. It is emotional and metaphorical. The stories of his childhood in Cuba serve as jumping off points to tell the story of what happens to Eire and his family after he leaves Cuba. These childhood memories also serve to give a frame to discuss big philosophical and religious questions and to examine political views. In this way, Eire makes the magic, history, and whimsy of his childhood relevant and timeless.

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.

Call for Submissions: Eurynome

Eurynome is now open for submissions!  Check them out below!

 

Eurynome publishes speculative fiction on a rolling basis. To ensure that everyone is on the same page, the following is a broad definition that Eurynome embraces:

Speculative fiction is an umbrella term encompassing the more fantastical fiction genres, specifically science fiction, fantasy, horror fiction, weird fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history in literature.

Clearly, speculative fiction includes a wide array of genres with varying gradients of fantasy and realism. We invite stories that make the reader think, not cringe. Please send your excessively gory or sexually explicit stories to a different magazine. However, we do like humor.

Eurynome gives special attention to pieces that retell old stories or myths for a modern audience, though a well-written fiction piece outside of those measures can find a home here. Please keep in mind that Eurynome is a digital publication, and therefore your submitted work should be convenient for on-screen reading. Don’t let unwieldy paragraphs damage the flow of your story.

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We do not accept simultaneous submissions or reprints, and please only submit one story at a time. If your finished story can already be found online (even on your personal blog) then unfortunately we do not wish to publish it. At this time, we are unable to monetarily compensate authors, but we hope to change that in the future.

If your story is accepted, congratulations! We will let you know when to expect your piece online. If we offer to publish your piece, Eurynome claims first world electronic rights. This means we reserve the right to be the first place to feature the story online, though you may submit it for subsequent reprints to other digital and physical publications that wish to accept it. You also retain your audio rights to the story.

If you receive a rejection, it may (but not always) include feedback on how the piece fell short. In some cases, we may invite you to resubmit after evaluating our feedback. Otherwise, however, please do not submit the same story again.

Before your story is published, we reserve the right to make minor (mostly cosmetic) edits. Any large edits will be sent to the author before publication for their feedback.

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FLASH FICTION

Eurynome accepts flash fiction, which is defined as a fiction piece between 500 and 1,000 words.

If you wish to submit a piece to the magazine, please send an e-mail to submissions@euryno.me, and attach a .rtf or .doc file containing your story in manuscript format. For the subject line, write:

[FLASH FICTION SUBMISSION: author name – story title]

In the body of the email, please include a short (2-3 sentences) biography about yourself, including a link to your website and/or your Twitter handle. Please also include an approximate word count, and tell us how you found our journal.

The average response time for flash fiction is under a week, but is usually quicker. If you do not receive a response after one month, please send a follow-up e-mail. Stories are read and responded to in the order they are received.

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SHORT STORIES

A short story is defined as a fiction piece between 1,001 and 7,500 words.

If you wish to submit a piece to the magazine, please send an e-mail to submissions@euryno.me, and attach a .rtf or .doc file containing your story in manuscript format. For the subject line, write:

[SHORT STORY SUBMISSION: author name – story title]

In the body of the email, please include a short (2-3 sentences) biography about yourself, including a link to your website and/or your Twitter handle. Please also include an approximate word count, and tell us how you found our journal.

The average response time for short stories is about a week, but is usually quicker. If you do not receive a response after one month, please send a follow-up e-mail. Stories are read and responded to in the order they are received.

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ARTWORK

Eurynome is regularly seeking artwork to complement our story selections. To inquire about providing an illustration for the magazine, please send the art you would like to submit, a short (2-3 sentences) biography, and a link to your portfolio (if applicable) tosubmissions@euryno.me. We accept artists of all skill levels, experience, and styles. At this time, we are unable to monetarily compensate artists. We do not commission artists, but instead accept their previously-created artwork. Artists retain their rights to submitted artwork.

Call for Submissions: Permafrost’s First Annual Book Prize in Fiction

 

 

Permafrost Magazine, the farthest north literary journal for writing and the arts, located at 64° 50′ N (198 miles from the Arctic Circle), is now accepting submissions for its First Annual Book Prize.  Check it out!

Also, take a look at the latest issue, which is out now!

We are proud to announce that we are now accepting submissions for the 1st Annual Permafrost Book Prize in Fiction!

Click here to submit!

 

Prizes:

The winner will win $1,000 and publication of their manuscript through the University of Alaska Press.

Eligibility:

We welcome manuscripts from all living writers the world over who are writing in English. Writers can be both published and unpublished. However, we will not consider manuscripts that have already been published elsewhere or have been self-published. We do accept simultaneous submissions, but please notify us immediately via email if your manuscript is accepted elsewhere. No past or present student or paid employee is eligible to enter the Book Prize Contest.

When to Submit

We are currently accepting submissions; the deadline ends on December 1, 2014.

Manuscript

Manuscripts must be a minimum of 150 pages long. All entries will be read anonymously. Please include two cover pages: the first listing only the title of the manuscript, the second including the author’s name, mailing address, telephone number, and email address. An acknowledgements page may be included also if the author wishes.

We accept only electronic submissions through our Submittable page.

Entry Fee

We ask a $20 entry fee to submit your manuscript to the contest.

Notifications

A winner should be selected by May 1, 2015. Results will be emailed shortly thereafter.

Judge

Our judge for the contest will be Benjamin Percy, whose works include Red Moon, Refresh, Refresh, The Wilding, and The Language of Elk.

Questions?

Please address inquiries to the editors at editor@permafrostmag.com.

Form and Format in Fiction: Les Guérillères by Monique Wittig

Les Guérillères by Monique Wittig is an otherworldly story of an apocalyptic war between men and women. Wittig writes in French, from a feminist perspective. In an attempt to subvert traditional ‘patriarchal’ forms of literature, Wittig uses a variety of interesting techniques to tell a different kind of story.

Structurally, it is difficult to call this work of fiction a novel in the traditional sense. There is no one character that the book follows. It could be argued that the book tells the story of “they” (humankind? womankind?) but there is not one personal main character. Occasionally, specific people are mentioned, but each is only mentioned for a few sentences before the writing reverts back to the more generalized story. Additionally, the book does not set up a linear narrative. Instead, Wittig writes Les Guérillères in a series of vignettes. These vignettes serve to give glimpses into the everyday life and the war of this possibly futuristic society. Some of the vignettes tell stories of specific people living in the society, some of them tell of the goddesses that the society worship, some tell of the collective history (which seems to point to a time much like present day) and some tell of specific points in the war between the sexes. It is not abundantly clear that the vignettes are even in a relatively chronological order, which raises some interesting questions. For example, is the seemingly utopian (all-female?) society at the beginning of the book the result of the war, or is it what creates the battle?

In terms of format, Wittig makes sure that this book looks different than other books from the get-go. The first thing the reader is confronted with in this book is a poem in all capital letters. As the book progresses, the vignettes are dispersed between lists of names which are also in all capital letters. The effect of these lists is like that of a war memorial, name after name of those lost in the fight. Less frequently, but perhaps more strikingly, the vignettes hold giant circles between them, whole pages on which the only thing that is written is a circle. There are quite a few vignettes that tell the significance of the circle, which is the symbol of the vulva. This importance of the symbolism of the female anatomy then comes up again and again in retellings of our society’s stories which are reworked to make the circle symbolism paramount.

The strength of this book, for me, is in this formatting. The ways in which Wittig subverts the reader’s expectations asks important questions. We know what the language and the literature of tradition looks like. But what does the language and the literature of the oppressed look like? Are there heroes or heroines? Does it undermine the traditional chronological order? Are symbols important enough to include? How do you tell the story of a group of people? Are there stories that are better told in non-traditional formats? What happens when these formats become traditional?

I can’t help but feel that something is lost in the translation of this book. There seems to be something very important happening in the pronouns being used and those pronouns leave the reader with a plethora of questions. Who are “they?” Who is included in this “they” and who is not? Are we as readers supposed to identify with what “they” say? Are we supposed to be critical of what “they” say? The answers to these questions make for very different readings of the book. If “they” are an inclusive group which tells the truth and speaks for all people, then we might take what they say at face value. However, if we question what “they” say (as we might when we say “some people say…”) then the society in this book might be read as a feminist dystopia, a matriarchal society that is ridden with the same problems as present society only with the roles reversed.

I think where this book falls short is in the heavy-handedness of the story itself. Perhaps I am idealistic, but I like to believe that it will not take an apocalyptic war to create an equal and free society. The combination of this war of mythic proportions and the unusual format come together in a way that feels pedantic. Though the book makes the reader think and ask questions, it also feels like it is leading the reader to specific thoughts and questions instead of allowing the reader to come to her own conclusions. This book feels like a hybrid between theory and literature, a theoretical discussion made material on the page.

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.

Call for Submissions: Cake & Grapes

Another new(to me)! magazine that’s open for submissions: Cake & Grapes!  With a name like that, how can you not submit?  Check them out.

We at Cake & Grapes believe that art is anyone’s game. 

That’s why we’re opening our doors to you: to give you a chance. Flash fiction, short fiction, epic poetry, photographs, sestinas, sketches, films, paintings, sculptures, gifs, papier mache hats – we want them all. 

Show us what you’re made of, and we’ll show the world.

GUIDELINES

We don’t want to hamper your creativity; we just need to lay down some basic rules.

Prose
Short fiction, flash fiction, and non-fiction are all accepted. All prose submissions must be less than 2,500 words in length. Exceptions will only be made for essays that are relevant and irreverent.

Poetry
If humorous, epic poems will be tolerated. Otherwise, it’s fair game.

Artwork
As this is an online publication, we will only be able to accept photographs or scans of your artwork. Please be sure that your work is well-lit. We will consider original comics, sketches, sculptures, paintings, graphic designs, gifs, – you name it – for publication.

Video
All video submissions must be less than 10 minutes in length. We’re not the FCC, so no worries there.

Feel like you fit within our loose rubric?

SUBMIT!

Drowning in Truth: Lessons from Dispatches from the Drownings by B.J. Hollars

Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction by B.J. Hollars is a deep, poignant look into the nature of nonfiction, specifically in how it relates to truth and fiction. Dispatches starts with a very necessary Author’s Note, in which Hollars explains his project:

Sticking with my ‘75/25 theory’ on the validity of facts, only seventy-five percent of the following hundred drowning dispatches are based on true accounts. The other twenty-five are completely fabricated. I have made no effort to differentiate. In fact, in an attempt to thwart the sleuthing reader, I have gone so far as to manufacture false entries in my bibliography. (Hollars, xiv)

Thus Hollars begins an exploration of where truth is found in journalism, in creative nonfiction, and in fiction and where the lines are between these three genres. Though Hollars admits that this way of going about things will be maddening for some readers, he is also clear and upfront about his truthfulness (or lack thereof). It could be argued that this ends up being more honest than most journalism, which does not discuss the writer’s own motives, how she comes to choose the facts she chooses, or what she chooses to stretch or leave out.

Dispatches is indeed a fascinating foray into the exploration of truth in writing, but it is also much more than that. I found myself unable to put the book down. This, despite the fact that Hollars himself admits that there is very little suspense in the book. Most of the stories end the same way, with a drowning. However, Hollars uses many techniques to keep the reader going. Some of these are very straightforward. The shortness of the articles, between one hundred and five hundred words pushes the reader on. The use of white space in the book keeps the articles from running together and also allows the reader that sense of moving quickly through the pages. It is, quite literally, a page-turner. The writing is also captivating, making puns or drawing conclusions so that the reader must ask: Is this Hollars or is he “paraphrasing” what was already there? So many of the articles end with eyebrow-raising lines, like the one about the man thought to have had a heart attack: “On his last swim, however, his heart was no longer in it” (Hollars, 162) or the story of the drowning of the “inmate at the feeble-minded home” which ends with “It appears as if they boy who sought independence on Independence Day found freedom at last in the river” (Hollars, 136).

Some of the things that keep the reader going, however, go deeper into the choices that Hollars made. For one, there is a great variety in the types of stories that Hollars uses. While most of the stories end in death by drowning, they don’t all. The stories vary from the rescue of a pig, to lovers’ quarrels, to mothers drowning children, to men in logging accidents. The sheer range of possibilities of ways to drown is mind-boggling. Additionally, Hollars gives us also a range of details. The articles do not simply state the name and date, etc. Some give the process of grief of survivors, some give the background of the deceased, some give insight into how mental illness was portrayed at the time, some give details about clothing, customs, or celebrations of the time period. The effect is that the reader is not reading the same story over and over again, but instead is looking through one hundred peepholes which give tiny glimpses into the lives of the people and the past. This effect is heightened by the use of photographs from that time period and place.

This array of information given and information withheld also leaves the reader with questions that keep her going through the book. What is mother’s disease? Did they ever find the body? Was that really an accident? What happened to the money? Hollars plays to these questions by very rarely giving the answers. For about four of the articles, he also gives follow-up articles that explain the story more fully. This keeps the reader going in hopes that more might be explained. It is very rare that it ever is.

Perhaps the most powerful thing that keeps the reader going is the search for truth. Knowing that twenty-five percent of the articles are not factual makes the book into a game, as if the more the reader reads, the more insight will be gained, and therefore perhaps the reader will be able to tell the “fraudulent” articles from the real ones. The reader feels as if perhaps the next article will hold clues about how to tell which stories are real, about how to read this book. True to his philosophy, Hollars never reveals which stories we may take as truth and which he fabricated. Instead of leaving the reader maddened, this has the effect of leaving the reader haunted: haunted by the drownings which may or may not have taken place, haunted that we may never know what happened, haunted by idea that truth may not be as easy to grasp as we once thought. Indeed, Hollars writes that he leaves this project with the same ghosts: “Despite all my research, I could no longer precisely recall which stories were factual and which I’d fabricated… I’ve studied the facts, I’ve fabricated the fictions, but I no longer know which me to believe” (Hollars, 184).

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.