John Knowles’ A Separate Peace by Kirby Gann

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John Knowles’ A Separate Peace by Kirby Gann is the latest in the Bookmarked series by ig Publishing. What makes this an enjoyable read is that it crosses several genres—memoir, literary criticism, and biography. Personally, I tend to read each of these for different reasons (emotional engagement, illumination, and research, respectively). Gann touches on all of these simultaneously, which results in a more compelling reading experience. At its heart, though, Gann’s book is a very personal story and exactly what it proclaims of itself on the cover: “…a no-holds barred personal narrative detailing how a particular novel influenced an author on their journey to becoming a writer…”

Early on, Gann sets out to provide the context in which he first encountered Knowles’ book. We see the young author (Gann) in his formative years as he becomes a writer and a musician. As Gann turns the microscope back on his childhood, we witness the author grappling with and discovering the formative events that helped make him who he is. This personal engagement (as opposed to a mere re-telling of events) is the hallmark of a successful memoir. This is a heartfelt, unflinching study of self, and especially appealing to me (as a reader) because it is the story of how a reader’s life can be affected by the books he reads.

Gann demonstrates how A Separate Peace became the right book at the right time for him—how he came to see himself as one of the book’s characters in the midst of personal childhood conflicts, and how it influenced his actions and friendship. He also shows how the book empowered him in the midst of difficulties. He contrasts what he gained from Knowles’ novel with the way other works affected his artistic sensibilities.

After studying the power of A Separate Peace and how time altered his re-reading of it, Gann gives us a thumbnail sketch of the life of John Knowles and his literary career. Now we see Gann turning the microscope from his own formative years to the later years of the writer who had inspired him, and this also strikes some poignant chords.

“Honest novelists will admit that although their work might originate in personal experience—narrative ideas informed by the author’s exposure to life—it is equally and as importantly true that books are born from other books.” –Kirby Gann, page 110.

Kirby Gann's book with lizard tracks.

Lizard tracks around John Knowles’ A Separate Peace by Kirby Gann

Blue Territory by Robin Lippincott

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BLUE TERRITORY: a meditation on the life and art of Joan Mitchell, by Robin Lippincott. Tidal Press. Blue Territory immerses the reader in the journey of abstract expressionist painter Joan Mitchell (1925-1992), from child figure skater to art student to impoverished expat in Paris to female painter in a male-dominated art world. And while all the ingredients of a strong biography are present—her formative years; her artistic influences; her methodologies; her friendships and lovers—Blue Territory is no mere biography. Blue Territory is itself a gallery of literary artwork—lovingly crafted images that form an artist’s study of Joan Mitchell.

Robin Lippincott’s work has always been strongly informed by his love of and keen observation of art. For ten years, he wrote reviews of art and photography books for The New York Times Book Review. His novel Our Arcadia—crafted like an impressionist painting with its short, deftly stroked chapters—portrayed the lives of a group of friends who set out to share their lives and essentially create a tiny artist’s colony called True House; “What’s important about life at True House is not necessarily birth and death, but art: painting, gardening and finding the Muse in between.” (—Publishers Weekly). Lippincott’s first novel, Mr. Dalloway, was an homage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway; Lippincott not only imagined a secret, untold life for the husband of Woolf’s protagonist, he told the story in a voice and style akin to Woolf’s. In Blue Territory, he brings this same keen observational acumen and artistic agility to the work and life of Joan Mitchell.

As she works, legs apart, her extended hands and arms become a part of the very air. From a distance (the other end of the studio) she resembles a dark starfish splayed against the canvas, always reaching, stretching—and like a starfish, she cannot be easily pried away from whatever she attaches herself to, in this case painting: for she is finally free, freely creating, and regardless of the source emotion, it is almost impossible not to feel joy in the act.

—Robin Lippincott, Blue Territory

Blue Territory is at once a cohesive and passionate narrative spanning Joan’s life, and simultaneously a gallery of more than thirty short literary works of art inspired by Joan’s style—in several instances including poems that are direct artistic renditions of specific paintings. The Tidal Press print version includes titles in blue ink and makes use of white space much like a gallery or art book, and the cover image is of a blank canvas. Lippincott divides Joan’s life into a triptych—beginning with the unique perceptions of her childhood and the formative influence of her parents and sister, followed by the establishment of her own voice and career with the influences of friends, writers, contemporaries, and predecessors (Frank O’Hara, Samuel Beckett, Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Rilke, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Matisse, Kandinsky, Van Gogh, Mondrian, Barney Rosset, Orozco, Siqueiros, Gorky, Philip Guston and Sam Francis to name a few), and ultimately the third panel of the triptych portrays her mature and self-assured efforts amidst the physical challenges of her latter years. Blue Territory evokes a deep understanding and connection with the artist, notably focused around specific moments of her creations.

Joan Mitchell’s paintings are inspired by her emotions and the poetry she loves. Robin Lippincott, in turn, creates poetry and prose inspired by her paintings, thus furthering the critical dialogue without which, art becomes meaningless.

Blue Territory by Robin Lippincott

New Memorial for Galaxy Flight 203 Crash Victims

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Wednesday marked 30 years since the loss of my parents. Remembrance and grief and healing come in different forms each year. It’s hard to believe I’m older now than they were when they died. This year, I’m focusing on what beautiful people they were, and how much energy they had and how much joy they spread. I’m noticing especially that I can feel them with me when I’m grateful and when I’m feeling good energy. Yesterday I attended the unveiling of a new memorial in Reno, and I met the sole survivor of the crash, George Lamson. I’ve spent most of my life trying to avoid anything having to do with the accident, and my grief was all focused inward. Meeting George and feeling a sense of community with him and the people who’ve worked to rededicate the memorial was a calming and rewarding experience. Guy Clifton wrote a nice article about the day, with this photo by Andy Barron.

http://www.rgj.com/…/new-memorial-galaxy-airlines…/22120481/

Troy at Galaxy Plane Crash Victims Memorial

Troy at Galaxy Memorial Grove

“Glimmering Places” in Love Free or Die

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Love Free or Die

Love Free or Die, New Hampshire Pulp Fiction, featuring fiction by Troy Ehlers. Elaine Isaak, editor.

My latest story, “Glimmering Places” is now available to order!  Love Free or Die (titled after the NH state motto “Live Free or Die”) is the 4th installment of Plaidswede’s New Hampshire Pulp Fiction anthology series.  This is the romance volume, available just in time for Valentine’s Day!  (ORDER HERE) My story is a modern paranormal romance about a recently widowed father and his young daughter, who claims to see her mother’s spirit.

Edited by Elaine Isaak, this anthology also features:

”Come Live With Me and Be My Love” by Michael Samuels

“Canobie Kisses” by Kari Lemor

“The Republic’s Last Revolution” by S. J. Cahill

“Hate Everybody” by Robin Small

“I Fall in Love with a Dog on Elm Street” by Judi Calhoun

“A Second Chance” by Shana Chartier

“Closure” by Anna Boghigian

“Summer Portrait” by Jessie Salisbury

“Portsmouth Propriety” by Susan E. Kennedy

“Psychodrome and Skyway” by Abby Goldsmith

“Casualties” by Sylvia Beaupre

“Eyre & Earp” by James Isaak

“When Autumn Leaves Fall” by David O’Keefe

“Catch” by Leah Brent

“Unbranding” by Justine Graykin

“K-Force” by Timothy Boudreau

“Deeply in Love” by Norman Klein

“Lambent Insularity” by B. K. Rakhra

“Rescued” by KJ Montgomery

“Lost and Found” by Melva Michaelian

“The Hike” by Robert E. Owen

“All’s Fair” by Amy Ray

“Five Deaths of Ellie Marsh”

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My story “Five Deaths of Ellie Marsh” won Crab Orchard Review’s 2014 Jack Dyer Fiction Prize and a $2,000 award.  Synopsis: When Michael learns of the suicide of his former girlfriend–whom he’d met volunteering in Venezuela–he must come to grips with the horror of her loss and fight through his grief.  Published in Volume 19, Issue 1.

Crab Orchard Review, Vol. 19, 1

Crab Orchard Review, Vol. 19, 1

Billie Girl by Vickie Weaver

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Billie Girl by Vickie Weaver is a powerful debut novel that spans the life of a southern woman born in 1900. Billie Girl is born on Easter Sunday, is abandoned, and winds up being raised by two women she later discovers to be brothers. Summarizing the plot in a sentence or two might give the impression that the novel is sensationalist, but in fact, many remarkable things occur in Billie’s life and they are taken as a matter of course rather than hyped, and experienced through a storytelling voice that is both strong and gentle; gripping and placid. The result is that we vicariously experience some controversial topics like gender identity, euthanasia, and bigamy in a natural, disarming manner. These things are just parts of her life, not exploited or sensationalized, and because of that, they feel genuine and honest. Billie’s tale is evocative not just because of her life events, but because of her strong and impressive character. This novel is thoroughly engaging and original. It’s the kind of book you can’t put down, and Billie Girl is the kind of character you wish you could spend more time with.

Billie Girl by Vickie Weaver

Billie Girl by Vickie Weaver

Two Deserts: Stories by Julie Brickman

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Two Deserts: Stories by Julie Brickman. As the title and cover suggests, two main characters—Emma and Livia—are the focus of these stories, and each is living in a desert, one literal and the other metaphorical. While this suggests a study of contrast, I found myself more impressed with the movement and energy in the story-telling. There is an enormous range of setting, topic, and conflict in these stories, and each story individually was compelling, fresh, and dynamic.  The stories engage the reader because this energy and range—exemplified by the collection’s contents (below)—are mirrored in the prose.  Brickman’s writing casts these story elements around the reader, ensnaring us in a web that is never predictable or linear.  The writing, like the collection and women featured therein, is bold and fearless.

“The Night at the Souk” opens the collection with a headlong and fearless journey of Emma, a Westerner now working in the Middle East, as she seeks to melt into her surroundings and become one with these people she has studied so thoroughly.

“The Cop, the Hooker and the Ridealong” packs a punch because it weaves together several disparate, potent storylines: Livia, a psychologist who has worked for the police, is concerned that her neighbor might be violent; she recalls counseling a young sex worker who was brought into the profession by her mother; and Livia recounts her husband’s diagnosis of ALS/Lou Gehrig’s disease. The movement throughout these woven storylines is evocative, gripping, and creates a nice resonance.

“Message from Ayshah” is a letter to Emma from the Arab daughter of Emma’s employer; it’s a youthful and excited letter about a young woman’s admiration of this foreign business woman and her desires to see the world and break free from the constraints of her homeland’s customs.

“The Dying Husbands Dinner Club” is just what the title suggests, and Livia gets together with other women for support; the story is full of black humor and bittersweet unflinching honesty, also shared in “Gear of a Marriage”.

“An Empty Quarter” is about Samir’s mother (Samir being Emma’s colleague) as she tries to accept her son growing up, and a reflection on his being seduced into terrorism; this story is a study of many aspects of Middle Eastern culture, all within the point-of-view framework of Muslim Motherhood.

“Supermax” speculates on Ted Kaczynski, Ramzi Yousef, and Timothy McVeigh sharing yard time together in prison, and explored the psychology of very different terrorists.

“End of Lust” is a humorous (and almost pity-inspiring) poke at male chauvinism; by turns, this story is about a middle-aged man reaching emotional maturity, or a womanizer falling prey to feminism, or a story of impotence; it’s both a thought-provoking look at the politics and psychology of sexual relations, and a light-hearted jab at men’s libido and the world of academe.

In “The Rainbow Range,” Emma and tour guide Muhammad must rescue a lost tourist in the desert from the threat of quicksand.

“The Back of Her” contrasts Livia’s day-to-day struggles caring for her husband with her symbolic dreams of escape.

“The Lonely Priest” is about a gay priest in the Alaskan wilderness struggling to reconcile his faith with his earthly desires, in the wake of his adopted son’s suicide.

Julie Brickman

Two Deserts: Stories by Julie Brickman

Haruki Murakami

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I just read Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart. Murakami’s work fascinates me and I’ve read most of his novels. His writing has always gripped me from beginning to end, and what’s impressive about this is that I usually have times in any given book where I lose a little patience as a reader or feel I understand too much of what the writer’s doing; my interest wanes. Not so with Murakami. Part of my fascination, I realize, is that I just can’t get a grip on exactly what he’s doing. I can try to explain in words his technique, but I never feel I’m doing it justice. And even if I do understand—in theory—what he’s doing, the stories take such amazing twists or he elevates his technique beyond what I’m expecting, so the story always feels fresh and original and unpredictable. For example, Murakami’s protagonist might discover the existence of a magical world (whether through magic realism or something more akin to outright fantasy—his technique transcends traditional labels), and I will expect this to evolve into some kind of metaphor. In lesser writers, I will immediately guess what this metaphor represents, and I’ll lose some interest in the story. With Murakami, however, I’ll almost lose sight of the metaphor until it sneaks back up and surprises me in a most pleasant manner… and it won’t end there, because suddenly the metaphor will unfold and I’ll find it wasn’t a simple parallel or symbol, but a whole jumble of emotions and life that he has managed to fold up into a beautiful, intricate pattern, like origami. If you can imagine origami being created not with blank paper, but written words, you’d have a Murakami novel.

He has a really cool website hosted by Random House, although I’ve found that it doesn’t always work on smartphones or mobile devices.

“Maybe, in some distant place, everything is already, quietly, lost. Or at least there exists a silent place where everything can disappear, melting together in a single, overlapping figure. And as we live our lives we discover—drawing toward us the thin threads attached to each—what has been lost. I closed my eyes and tried to bring to mind as many beautiful lost things as I could. Drawing them closer, holding on to them. Knowing all the while that their lives are fleeting.” —Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel

Haruki Murakami

Kirby Gann’s Ghosting shortlisted for The Kentucky Literary Award

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Congratulations to my mentor, Kirby Gann, whose novel Ghosting has just been named a finalist for the Kentucky Literary Award.  I first read it a week or two after publication, and I remember being up until 2am, unable to put it down for the last 100 pages.  Ghosting, set in rural Kentucky, is about a young man, James Cole, who is haunted by the disappearance of his stepbrother.  Most believe that his stepbrother, who’d worked as a drug runner, simply made off with one of the kingpin’s hauls and fled town.  Cole doesn’t believe that his stepbrother would have left without leaving word for him; especially knowing that he himself has always hoped to escape this small community and its complex web of family histories, drug dealing, and addiction.  Cole’s sense of loss and his yearning to understand, complicated by his own loss of direction and his mother’s painkiller addiction, wind up drawing him farther and farther into the underworld, in danger of forsaking his own destiny while following his stepbrother’s footsteps.

Ghosting is a tragedy of loss that doesn’t wallow; it’s a gritty look at the real horrors of drug addiction and commerce in rural America; and it’s a suspenseful coming-of-age thriller.  What impresses me most about Ghosting is the depth and complexity of the characters, and Gann’s talent for exploring their psychologies from fresh angles.  (This same talent is realized in his previous novel, Our Napoleon in Rags) Gann doesn’t allow his characters to be pigeonholed.  The novel’s drug kingpin isn’t a stereotypical, flat, bad guy; we see how he became who he is, we witness his pains, jealousy, grief, desires, and personal eccentricities.  Gann does not draw his characters from society’s medians and portray them along a fixed dimension, he discovers real people (whether mainstream or fringe) and boldly delves into their exceptional contradictions and fascinating eccentricities.

Troy Ehlers reading Kirby Gann's Ghosting

Bollywood!

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An unexpected development in my life last year was the discovery of Bollywood films.  It’s not that I don’t still love Hollywood and American independent films, but Hindi cinema has really been a thrilling change of pace.  I couldn’t have imagined how thoroughly fresh and new these films would be to experience.  Here’s just a few reasons why you might want to consider enjoying them if you aren’t already.  There are great selections in Netflix, and if you’re lucky, your local cinema might carry a Hindi film once in a while (like my AMC theater does!)

Bollywood films are visually stunning—and I’m not just talking about the crazy action scenes (where a car hit by a cricket bat will flip end over end)—but visually stunning because of the radiance of the Indian color palette.  Just in case the aqua, pink, orange, and red houses aren’t enough, you have women in colorful silk saris and scarves and men in bright lungis and sherwanis.  And if that still isn’t enough, maybe they’ll smear bright red, blue, green, and yellow powder on each other’s faces during the Holi festival.

Bollywood films have great musical energy.  Often to mark new interpersonal conflicts (or their resolution and metamorphosis), the characters will suddenly break out into the carefully choreographed dances that are a hallmark of Hindi cinema.  Sometimes these songs will seem almost random.  Sometimes the lyrics aren’t translated, which leaves you guessing.  But the energy and expression of these dances is a great mood elevator and change of pace.

http://youtu.be/H3y66bW4Feg

Bollywood films have engaging personal and political drama.  Regional politics and religion have played an important part in every film I’ve seen, whether through clandestine relationships between a Muslim and a Hindu, or clashes between local political sects, or discrimination between regional peoples and languages.  The pain of the Partition of India still echoes in many films.  Bhaag Milka Bhaag (trailer below) is the true story of how the Flying Sikh overcame discrimination to join the Indian national track team. 

http://youtu.be/iY3qfhYPJSI

Bollywood films have epic stories.  If you’ve grown tired of the often formulaic story arcs in American films, you might be blown away by the Hindi storylines.  After watching a couple dozen, you’ll realize they have a formula all their own, but they have such epic scales.  A Hollywood movie might show the struggle of some young men to start a business, and show their rise and fall… But in Kai Po Che, for instance, you see that business struggle, a clandestine love affair, a natural disaster, the friendship and camaraderie with young boys that they introduce to cricket, political strife that tears families apart, street battles between political rivals, a cricket match the reunites the nation, death and tragedy and rebirth… all in one film!  Many Bollywood films will seem to drag on (they usually are 3 hours in length!), and sometimes you’ll feel they’ve tried to do too much; but they have such novel ways of telling stories and creating plot turns that I felt I was learning something as a writer… sometimes you forget that relationships can be moved by so many different things, and you realize you’ve fallen back on a limited store of emotions and events. 

I was lucky that Kai Po Che (trailer below) was the first Bollywood film I saw, because it is one of the best of recent years and will probably remain my favorite for quite a while.  Kai Po Che was available on Netflix last I looked.