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Paul Wilner

The Opportunity to Understand What’s Different: Q&A with Christine Sneed

Christine Sneed (photo by Adam Tinkham)

Christine Sneed (photo by Adam Tinkham)

Over the course of a relatively short but extremely productive literary career, Christine Sneed has already achieved a substantial, and enviable, body of work. Her first story collection, 2009’s Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, was awarded the AWP Grace Paley Prize and long listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story prize.

Both for its attention to detail, and its close, caring, but unsentimental attention to the complicated lives of women (and men), Portraits is in Paley’s spirit at the same time as it honors the tradition of what O’Connor called “the lonely voice’’ that characterizes the under-respected story form.

Sneed, who is the faculty director of the MA/MFA in Creative Writing Program at Northwestern, followed that success with an ambitious novel in 2013, Little Known Facts, about the hidden costs, and familial complications, of Hollywood fame. In a glowing front-page review in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Curtis Sittenfeld wrote, “Christine Sneed has written a novel just for us: Little Known Facts is just juicy enough to appeal to our prurience but smart enough not to make us feel dirty afterward.”

Nothing daunted, Sneed next spread her wings further with Paris, He Said, a novel about a struggling artist who moves to Europe at the urging of an older gallery owner who sets her up in his apartment. Robin Black’s notice for the Times said,With clever and graceful prose, Sneed deftly guides a story that explores whether satisfaction follows when one’s deepest wishes come true.’’

In her newest book, the just-published The Virginity of Famous Men (320 pages; Bloomsbury), she returns to her favored form of the short story, with deepening psychological explorations and a commitment to sympathetic, knowing understanding of the spaces between us—how we punish each other, and often ourselves, because of these missed connections.

Sneed took time to talk with us via email about the new collection, and her career:

ZYZZYVA: In a sense, The Virginity of Famous Men seems like a coda to Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry. Apart from the fact that they both have great titles, what similarities—or differences—do you see in the two works?

Christine Sneed: I suppose most writers would have to say this, but I’m most interested in relationships—whether they’re between spouses, siblings, parents and children, friends. The tensions that arise in everyday life have always been a source of inspiration, and I suppose that even with the stories that are a little more out there (with on-the-verge characters who count a ghost as a close friend, or another who is applying for a job in a manner that probably won’t get her too many offers), I’m most interested in how people connect with each other, or else the opposite—how we alienate each other. That dominant theme is the same here as it was in Portraits.

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Legendary Frontier Days Told for These Times: ‘Paul Bunyan’ by Larry Beckett

51MF2m8+EVL._SX341_BO1,204,203,200_Poet and songwriter Larry Beckett has been embarked on a quixotic project, retelling the legend of the famed, semi-fictional logger Paul Bunyan (not to mention his “blue-eyed ox,’’ Babe) in ways that capture the barbaric yawp of olden times in a voice that speaks to our current culture, and implicitly, paralysis of spirit.

Bypassing empty debates about the pros and cons of “American exceptionalism,” Beckett flat out launches into the introduction of this hero of a thousand faces:

Out of the wild North woods, in the thick of the timber
And through the twirling of the winter of the blue snow,
Within an inch of sunup, with the dream shift ending,
A man mountain, all hustle, all muscle and bull bones,
An easy winner, full of swagger, a walking earthquake,
A skyscraper, looking over the tallest American tree,
A smart apple, a wonder inventor, the sun’s historian,
A cock-a-doodle hero, a hobo, loud, shrewd, brawling,
Rowdy, brash as the earth, stomping, big-hearted, raw,
Paul Bunyan lumbered and belly-laughed at the stars.

Admirers of, say, John Ashbery, may stop here, but the rest of us can stick around for the ride of Beckett’s Paul Bunyan (96 pages; Smokestack Press), a roiling picaresque, described by the publisher as a “modern epic in ‘longwinded’ blank verse.”

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The ‘Swamp-Rat Rimbaud’: ‘What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford’

What About ThisWhat About This, the title of the massive new edition of the Collected Poems of Frank Stanford (747 pages, Copperhead Press) announces, a cover picture of the late poet (dubbed the “swamp-rat Rimbaud’’ by Lorenzo Thomas) glaring at you.

Well, what about it?

First things first: If the romantic ideal of the poet is to live fast, love hard, and leave a good-looking corpse, Stanford did all of the above, and then some.

It’s impossible to ignore the biography. Born August 1, 1948, in Richton, Mississippi, Stanford shot himself, after reportedly being confronted about multiple infidelities by his wife, Ginny, and his girlfriend, C.D. Wright, who were both in his Fayetteville, Arkansas, house at the time—June 3, 1978, a couple of months shy of his 30th birthday.

That’s about the only thing you could say was shy about Stanford.

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Reminders About What Was Fine (and Forgettable) About Norman Mailer

Mind of an OutlawThere’s a great moment in Lou Reed’s “Take No Prisoners’’ album in which Reed, after taking aim at the rock critic Establishment of the day, decides to go after the literary elite, too. “I met (Norman) Mailer at a party, and he tries to punch me in the stomach to show me he’s a tough guy,” Reed riffs. “The guy’s pathetic, you know. I said, ‘Come on, man, you’ve got to be kidding. Go write a Bible.’ ”

Well, Mailer tried.

The publication of two new books on Mailer’s life and legacy serves as a reminder of how far we’ve come from the days in which he appeared to be a central literary figure and of the limits of hagiography.

Mind of An Outlaw (Random House; 656 pages), a collection of selected essays edited by Phillip Sipiora, with an introduction by Jonathan Lethem (perhaps to appeal to the younger demographic; if so, the next edition should include an appreciation from Tao Lin), seemed the more promising, if only because of Mailer’s journalistic verve.

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Big Two-Hearted River Still Runs: Donald Lystra’s ‘Something That Feels Like Truth’

SomethingThe recent award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Alice Munro was one of those cultural events which seemed uniquely well-deserved, if just because of the Canadian author’s modest attention to the little disturbances of men—and women— that give life meaning and shape. It may mean—I hope it means—a rebirth of interest in the short story, a form that while notoriously hard to “brand” in the publishing world, is uniquely qualified to communicate such particularities.

Donald Lystra explores this territory with tact and precision in his new collection, Something That Feels Like Truth (Switchgrass Books/Northern Illinois University Press). A Michigan native and retired engineer who came to writing late in life (his first novel was Season of Water and Ice), Lystra’s quiet stories recall the rhythms of Raymond Carver’s and the unhappy angst of (early) Beattie, although Hemingway’s Nick Adams tales are the more obvious antecedents.

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Buffeted in His Father’s Wake: Kelly Daniels’ ‘Cloudbreak, California’

Cloudbreak, California“The pure products of America go crazy,’’ William Carlos Williams memorably wrote, and from Aurora to the weird kid lounging at the register of the local 7-Eleven, we see the proof of his perception all around us. In ‘70s Southern California, Kelly Daniels grew up amid such strangeness as the son of a drug-dealing, surfer-bum dad (who was ultimately convicted of killing a drug-dealing cousin) and a well-intentioned and loving mom, who signed up with a cult called the Church of the Living.

Although he found temporary refuge with his wealthy grandparents, Daniels grew up, understandably, confused and angry. With admirable tact and dispassion, he has channeled that turmoil into a memoir, Cloudbreak, California (228 pages; Owl Canyon Press). Warned by his father that the cousin’s son might someday seek revenge, Corleone-style, upon him, Daniels contemplates his fate: “A boy, my age, a hidden enemy, was growing up alongside me, plotting revenge.’’

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A Careful Reading of a Literature’s Underdogs: Larry Beckett’s ‘Beat Poetry’

Beat PoetryThe beat goes on.

Larry Beckett, the one-time songwriter (he famously collaborated with the late Tim Buckley) has long been immersed in an ongoing poetic project called “American Cycle,’’ which takes an ambitious look at the folkloric past—from Paul Bunyan and P.T. Barnum, to Chief Joseph and Amelia Earhart and other figures from the “old weird America.’’

His latest book, simply titled Beat Poetry (Beatdom Books, 150 pages), tries to put into meaningful perspective the oft heralded if frequently over-hyped revolution in American poetry that took birth from the vernacular modesty of that good obstetrician William Carlos Williams and incorporated the spare eloquence of forebears like Li Po.

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A Girl’s Honesty Sees Her Through Adults’ Lunacy: Lenore Zion’s ‘Stupid Children’

Stupid ChildrenThere’s a lot of good writing out there—an amazing amount, really, considering the ongoing moaning and groaning going on about the “death of literacy’’ and other current cultural shibboleths—but not that much that is truly original, free of clearly demarcated literary influences, antecedents and referents.

A thousand Eggers, David Foster Wallaces, let alone Kerouac and Salinger imitators, bloom from every Brooklyn basement and suburban redoubt. All the more remarkable, then, when someone finds a way to make it new, speaking her own truths against the powers of the past.

Which makes Los Angeles author Lenore Zion’s first novel, Stupid Children (Emergency Press, $15.95), all the more remarkable.

“According to my father, he was assigned a grief counselor when my mother died,’’ she begins. “It was sudden—an unanticipated death, and he was left to care for me all on his own—and I was just an infant, seven months old, actually, so his grief was fueled by both loss and overwhelming responsibility. From time to time, I feel rather guilty about this. I wish I could have been older so I could have pitched in. Maybe I could have gotten a job to help out.”

Jane, Zion’s fictional protagonist, is wise beyond her years, a smart-ass struggling to find her way in a confusing, and often frightening world, as her father struggles with his own loneliness, sometimes waking her in the middle of the night so they can go to a diner for an early breakfast. The world becomes even scarier—much scarier—when he attempts suicide, leaving her in the hands of two Florida foster parents who belong to a cult called Second Day Believers, whose belief systems could find a comfortable home amid the followers of Jim Jones or the farther reaches of Scientology.

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Bohemian Rhapsody: ‘Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan’ by William Hjortsberg

To simplify, Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan (Counterpoint; 880 pages), William Hjortsberg’s massive new biography of the late, once-iconic poet and novelist, can be roughly divided into three parts:

BUMMER. Brautigan’s childhood years, growing up poor and alienated in a dysfunctional family in the eternally drizzly Pacific Northwest. Highlights included the poet’s hospitalization—and treatment with electric shock—after throwing a rock into the local police station after a girl he had a crush on rejected him.

TRIPPY. Brautigan’s arrival in San Francisco, well ahead of the Summer of Love, whose spirit he briefly seemed to embody, and his immersion into the wild and crazy world of North Beach bohemia.

This section of the book, which comes as a welcome relief from the depression and Raymond Carver-esque solitude which preceded it, also serves as a spirited encapsulation of times and places that now seem as distant as pet rocks.

Despite a less than welcoming literary embrace from Allen Ginsberg, who called him “Frood’’ and a “neurotic creep,’’ perhaps in reaction to a competing literary visionary’s encroachment on his home turf, Brautigan found succor and support from North Beach legends of the time, including Jack Spicer, himself an exile from the main street of Beat bohemia, and Lew Welch, a tortured, twangy poet who ultimately walked away into the wild, though not before providing an entertaining alternative to academic exercises and overheated rhapsodies.

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Pauline, of Petaluma: Brian Kellow’s ‘Pauline Kael’ and ‘The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael’

Let the record be clear: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a “Paulette,” the derisive term used for the camp followers of the late, great Pauline Kael, who slavishly faxed her advance copies of their reviews, hoping for her approval, encouragement and career advancement.

But to be equally clear, I am a huge admirer of Kael’s body of work, starting with “I Lost It At The Movies,’’ her enormously influential early collection of pieces, many of them from her feisty days as a caustic commentator on KPFA, portions of which are excerpted in the massive, somewhat daunting new collection, “The Age Of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael’’ (Library of America; 750 pages), edited by Sanford Schwartz.

In a little known bit of West Coast literary history, she got her gig at the station,  as Brian Kellow recounts, in his measured – some would say too measured – new biography, “Pauline Kael: A Life In The Dark” (Viking; 432 pages), after the poet Weldon Kees took a Hart Crane-like dive off the Golden Gate Bridge.

Pauline took over the show, joining other KPFA personages like Phil Elwood, the longtime jazz critic for the San Francisco Examiner, and a star was born.

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An Emphatic Vision That Sees Beyond the Stars: Louis B. Jones’ ‘Radiance’

“This was a city of the world, a profound city, an endless city,” reflects Mark Perdue, the narrator and protagonist of Louis B. Jones’ latest novel, Radiance (Counterpoint; 240 pages), as he contemplates the unfamiliar surroundings of Los Angeles.

The departure from Jones’ home turf of Terra Linda and Berkeley — ground zero for his previous novel, Particles and Luck, also featuring Perdue, and his alarmingly excellent first novel, Ordinary Money — is salutary, and disturbing, for the author and his invented worlds.

In the new book, Perdue, a physics prof at UC Berkeley with a fading career that may be related to symptoms from Lyme’s Disease, is confronting what in less elegant terms than Jones’ might be considered a mid-life crisis.

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