latest recovery read

Posted April 3, 2019 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Rants and ruminations, Reviews and Responses

Tags: , ,

I mentioned recently that I was working my way through To the Lighthouse because I had re-read Mrs. Dalloway last year and really enjoyed it. But I knew I needed to put a little distance betwixt my Woolf readings, so I waited this long to pick her up again. (I did, however, buy a nice reading copy of Orlando over the weekend.) Her stream-of-consciousness, Modernist sentences took some effort, and I often had to re-read a given sentence, either because I didn’t understand who was talking/what was being said or because I just wanted to savor it again. So it was slow going, getting to that lighthouse.

When I finished it, I grabbed a novel called The Book of Joe, by Jonathan Tropper. The jacket blurb mentioned something about a troubled relationship between the protagonist and his father (plus the obvious Old Testament reference), so I was interested. It turned out to have less to do with that (the father dies pretty early in the story) and more to do with the protagonist becoming less of a dick.

It was a quick read, not demanding and not making any deep literary or philosophical allusions (that I spotted anyway), and when I was done I wanted to read something with a little more substance.

So I picked up Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. I’d read at least two of his other novels years ago in a book discussion group I was in. (I miss those guys!) Our Souls at Night is a short book, and the copy I have is a small book, so even the “few” 179 pages are misleading since the physical page is undersized enuf that each page contains fewer words than a regular book would. I finished it in two days.

Haruf is perhaps as far from Woolf as a writer can get. I think he would make Hemingway seem verbose (if I were ever going to read a Hemingway novel again to compare, which I won’t). His sentences are spare. His descriptions are minimal. He comes directly to his points without a lot of verbiage or scene setting. He assumes that a lot of the story corollary is going to happen inside the reader’s head, so he doesn’t throw a lot of stuff at you.

Yet even so, his characters are believable and easily visible (though in my mind I did not picture the two main characters as Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, as they were cast in the movie made of the novel).

All of Haruf’s half dozen novels (I intend to read them all) are set in a fictional town called Holt, Colorado, on the Front Range. It’s a good setting for such spare writing since it is a spare country. He makes reference in each of his novels to characters who appear in his other novels, even touching on those plots. I’m fine with that (Elizabeth Strout does this sometimes, too), but what happens in Chapter 34 of Our Souls at Night is something I’ve never seen another writer do.

I won’t tell you what this is since the novel is such a short read. You could indulge yourself if interested, no?

“Forest Succession” finds a home

Posted April 2, 2019 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Fathers and Sons, short stories

Tags: , ,

Can I trust an email I received on April Fool’s Day? The email told me that my story “Forest Succession” was accepted for publication later this month in Heartwood Literary Magazine. When the issue goes live, I’ll be sure to post a link here.

Heartwood Literary Magazine says that it likes Appalachian voices but is not restricted to them. I set my story in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, so I think there must have been enuf similarity to capture their interest.

“Forest Succession” is not part of the One-Match Fire novel, but it does involve one of the characters, and I think of it as the very last story in the chronology for those characters.

I have submitted this story to three other publications that haven’t yet responded, and I’ll need to withdraw it from those, but it has had the honor of being rejected by fifteen other publications and one that never responded after 279 days.

famous for its regressive politics

Posted April 1, 2019 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ramblings Off Topic, Rants and ruminations

In the third-person bios I provide on those rare occasions when a journal publishes one of my humble stories I say that I live “near Kansas City” (but escape to my Ozark cabin whenever I get the chance).

As you may know if you’ve read this blog long enuf, I grew up in St. Louis, as did my wife, and our four children were born there. I moved my young family to where we are now (30+ years ago) to take a job. When we were looking for a home, our first priority was to get into the best school district. And that’s how we landed on the Kansas side of the state line that Kansas City abuts. (Note: the Kansas City you’ve heard of is probably the one in Missouri, though there is one in Kansas as well, and there’s a North Kansas City that is also in Missouri.) Yes, I live in vanilla suburbia, but it was a fine place to raise children (who have all since escaped to live very different lives). The “problem” is that our home was/is in Kansas, which is famous for its regressive politics. (And spoken by someone who originally comes from Missouri, that’s a serious jibe! Though the recent Blue Wave did make some deep inroads!)

All of this is by way of explaining what is happening in Kansas today. As of April 1, 2019, the grocery stores can now sell “full-strength” beer. Before today, we had to settle for 3.2 percent grocery store beer or carry ourselves to unseemly package liquor stores to get the hard stuff. (And when I first moved here, you could not get an alcoholic drink at a restaurant unless you went to and were a member of dedicated supper clubs that had permits for such debauchery. True story!) You might think that someone who grew up in St. Louis (where Big Bru was a major employer) would be rejoicing at this, but that’s not really the case. And despite the kindly efforts of someone whose name might be something like Yellowstone, I have never developed a taste for craft beers (and I have tried!).

The thing is, I’ve drifted from the true faith and now actually prefer to drink non-alcoholic beer. Sure, I can drink a “full-strength” beer at a restaurant. More than one even. And alcohol-containing beer can sometimes be found in my refrigerator, but given my druthers,* I will supply myself with non-alcoholic beer.

And there’s the rub. For some reason, in the middle of March, all of the grocery stores pulled ALL of the 3.2 beer from their coolers. The shelves were either left empty or they were filled with bottled water. I suppose that was a Puritanical requirement of the law change for some reason, but in that time I could not find my non-alcoholic beer. Certainly the unseemly package liquor stores didn’t carry it. Why would they? I even went across the state line to Missouri to find it, but the grocery stores there didn’t carry it either.

And so the new alcoholic era begins today in Kansas. It remains to be seen whether or not I’ll be able to find my non-alcoholic beer in this embarrassment of riches.

*”druthers” is a curious, regional contraction of “would rather.”

not really Irish either

Posted March 25, 2019 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Finnegans, short stories

I am told that I have some small Scottish heritage, though I suspect “lineage” is the better word, and “small” should be in italics. I know of no cultural influence from my distant Scottish ancestors (on my mother’s side) that survives in me. It’s not that I would object to having this influence. Rather that it may as well not be listed in my pedigree since it doesn’t seem to affect who I am.

Even less do I have any Irish influence, though my best friend in high school was a first generation Irish American and whose father I could rarely understand because his brogue was so thick. I did understand him, though, when he said St. Patrick’s Day was for people who wished they were Irish.

But neither of these flaws in my makeup has prevented me from working on two stories with strong Irish influences. One I’ve mentioned before is a short story that may or may not have a leprechaun in it. And the other is an entire novel that is set in an Irish-American community and in which Irish heritage plays an important role.

I had “finished” the short story last fall and sent it to an editor who had accepted two of my stories in the past. I thought the possible supernatural angle was risky for the sports theme of the journal, but it had to do with running, so I gave it a try. The editor sent it back to me saying that it was pretty good but not quite there. He actually wanted more of the supernatural element. So I rewrote it and tried to play that up without being obvious and then sent it to him again. And he returned it again, saying he wanted me to be more obvious.

And so I’ve been working on it, not sure just what more I can do with it without giving away the hinted-at leprechaun element. In part because I like hinting and letting readers make the connections themselves but in larger part because the runner will get his wish through a means other than a magical beneficence from a demigod. That’s kind of the whole point of the story. And so I dither. Is this rewrite far enuf to satisfy the editor yet not so far as to give away the store? Is there more I can do to refine this truly fine point? Or is it just not going to get to the shape the editor wants? The fact that he’s given me two chances at rewriting tells me that I should put serious, worthy effort into it. And so I will anguish and wring my hands and let it incubate for another week or so to see if any revelations come my way.

The other Irish-y piece I’m working on, the novel, is one of the Finnegans cozy mystery novels I’ve been dabbling in for the last decade (and what I had begun this humble blog for originally back in 2007). The story is set in a small city that had a strong Irish history. That’s changing now, and that’s where a great deal of the tension in the story comes from. A new ethnic heritage is supplanting the Irish history of the town, and while some embrace this new reality, others (for reasons beyond the obvious) are resisting it.

I can mitigate my lack of authentic Irish cultural knowledge when I write about this community with the fact within the story, the town has existed in the American Midwest (in a state called Illinois) for nearly 200 years, so it is truly more American now than Irish. Thus my deficient Irish portrayal is actually more authentic since the community is not that much Irish any longer.

I have one more chapter to write to finish the first draft, and lest you think I’ve written all of this in the last two weeks, let me say that I had begun this novel more than a year ago when I (foolishly) believed I need to take a break from the One-Match Fire novel that was consuming me with no end in sight at the time. Even so, this Finnegans novel, which is one chapter away from being finished in first draft, is only 49,000+ words. I’ll o’er top the 50,000 word count barrier with the last chapter, and there are a couple of substantive characters/interactions I’m thinking of adding to what’s already written that will swell the word count, but I think it will come in at the minimum word count needed to qualify as a cozy mystery novel.

And that’s what I’ve been working on in recent weeks.

a dash to Roundrock

Posted March 20, 2019 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Roundrock

Tags: ,

I made an abbreviated trip to my woods last Saturday. My wife was out of town (in NYC, seeing the grands and catching every virus they had, apparently), and I had obligations in town that morning. But when those were discharged, I threw some things in my truck, including the two dogs, and turned it toward my cabin.

The plan had been to have a fire in the evening as the sun went down, burn some hot dogs and maybe enjoy a few adult beverages, then crawl into bed in the cabin and sleep till I woke on Sunday.

It didn’t happen that way. I felt oddly anxious the whole time, like I should have stayed at home, and that seemed to put a pall on the visit. The lake, I’m happy to report, was at full pool (and the partly repaired spillway wasn’t washed away). The spring peepers were enjoying all of the water leaking under the dam in the acre below it. The temps were moderate — into 50+ degrees under a blue, blue sky. I had groceries to carry me through the weekend and enuf chores that did not involve starting the chainsaw (something I don’t like to do when I’m out there alone) to keep me busy the whole time.

But it wasn’t pulling together for me. All I could think about was that I should have stayed home. That I had forgotten something important to do there. That I needed to get back. It didn’t help that our small dog, Queequeg, was being willful and wouldn’t stay inside the cabin. I look at him as coyote bait when he’s out there, so he needs constant watching. When he could escape — the clever beast would wait inside the door and slip out as I stepped in — he would dash for my truck and sit under it, presumably where a bird of prey could not reach him, but also where I could not reach him. I fooled him once with a treat and managed to get him back in the cabin. But he didn’t fall for it the second time.

I had collected the makings for a one-match fire, but with the recent time change, the sun wasn’t going to set for hours, and like dogs that are coyote bait, fires in a forest need constant watching. So I didn’t want to start the fire hours before dinner or darkness and then have to be tied to it for those hours. (I was already tied to a dog.)

Somehow I managed to get both dogs in the cabin at the same time and threw myself on my bed, thinking I could luxuriate with an actual nap. But sleep wouldn’t come. As I lay (?) there I realized that I didn’t really want to spend the night, only to wake to just-above-freezing temps that would linger all morning. And that made building a fire superfluous since it would take me well into the night before I could leave it, and who wants to drive home at highway speeds through deer country in the dark? So in a moment of uncharacteristic behavior, I decided just to give in to whatever demon was deviling me and go back home. (Never mind that I spent less time at my cabin than it took me to drive to and from it.) The dogs, as they always are, were fully in favor of this idea when I proposed it to them. So I put them in the truck and then packed up what little I had brought down (that I didn’t intend to leave, including several hundred marbles, but that’s for a different post). Then I turned my truck toward home.

I did make a few observations while I was in my woods though. You may remember this mineral block I had put near the cabin:

My goal at the time was to see if it would be favored by the gnawing critters rather than the cabin’s doorjamb that they’ve been chewing to bits. The doorjamb showed plenty of fresh chew marks, but the mineral block looked like this:

You can see that the corners have been nibbled a little, but I’ve seen these reduced to slivers, and it had sat there for more than a month (since my last visit) with little attention. So this doesn’t seem to be my solution to the gnawing of the doorjamb.

I had also hung this bird feeder — one big mass of seed — on a tree in front of the cabin on my prior visit:

Note how the lake looked pretty full then.

Here is what I found when I returned last weekend:

So I think it was a big hit, though I don’t suppose it did anything to prevent the gnawing of the doorjamb either. It’s not easy to tell, but the lake in the second photo is actually much fuller. If I can figure out how to post an actual video here, you’ll get to see what I saw over the weekend.

I’m not sure when I’ll be back down again. Winter seems to have gotten the message and has retreated — at least in this part of the Midwest and for right now — so that should mean more opportunities to visit.

“Twilight of the Alpha Males” has found a home

Posted March 13, 2019 by Paul Lamb
Categories: short stories

Tags: , ,

I mentioned here once or twice about a story I wrote that was only 460+ words long yet seemed whole and complete. I dithered with it, thinking maybe there was more story to tell, but when no more story presented itself I figured it was finished. My first piece of flash fiction. I was originally going to call it “Rolling Coal” but then settled on “Twilight of the Alpha Males.” It’s a fun story, with maybe a jibe at some current political situation. (Or maybe not.)

So I began sending it out to see if there was any interest. And it turns out there was. The very first place I submitted it to, accepted it. “Twilight of the Alpha Males” will appear in the May 2019 issue of Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.

I had sent it to two other places, the second only two days ago, and now I must withdraw those submissions.

When the story comes up, I’ll post a link here.


Posted March 4, 2019 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Fathers and Sons

Tags: ,

When I had boldly said before that I had finished writing the vignettes, surely you knew that I would come back to correct such an outrageous assertion.

Doing the math, I had them done. Twenty-four chapters; twenty-three inter-chapter vignettes in the bank. I even spent a stressful evening inserting the vignettes from their separate file into the body of the One-Match Fire document, creating the new document I named “OMF v.v.” I grumbled as I did this because every single time they imported as a different typeface that I had to fix and then panicked when somehow their placement got off and I seemed to be missing one. I got it all worked out in the end, even changing the (very short) Chapter 24 into a vignette itself. And I thought it done.

Silly me.

I guess maybe I needed to believe it was done so I could jolt my self into considering the implications of this and realize that I was missing something truly fundamental.

Nowhere in the entire novel did I have a character actually building and lighting a one-match fire. I had fires burning and fires remembered, but I’d never had a one-match fire built. Building a successful one-match fire is supposed to be a skill that is handed down from father to son in the novel. Hence the title.*

So, vignettes to the rescue. I thought that I could devote one of them to this important task. They are long enuf (~300 words) to cover the process, and the activity spans the novel, so it needn’t happen in any one given story. It occurred to me that since it is a tradition that belongs to the three main characters, I could write the vignette such that any one of them could be building the fire. (There are a couple of lines of dialogue in the novel that are not tagged and remain ambiguous because they could be spoken by any one of the three in their moments.) I wouldn’t specify which character was building the fire. He would note that the other two were down at the lake, thus making clear that all three are at the cabin, while he was building their evening fire. And which of them he was wouldn’t matter. The tradition was successfully handed down and any of the three could accomplish it.

That part was easy. I’ve built enuf of one-match fires myself to know how to describe the process. But once I had the vignette written, I needed a place to put it. Fortunately, I was never really satisfied with another one I had written. It did provide important information to the novel, and it bolstered some character explication that was also important, but it seemed forced, even gratuitous. I figured I could take the essentials from the weak vignette and insert them into an existing story/chapter to do the same thing. (Plus, it had some snarky word play that I didn’t want to lose.) I did this without too much surgery, leaving its placement open.

And it happened that its placement was sufficiently along in the storyline that the youngest character (of the three) was old enuf to be able to build successful one-match fires himself.

I’m in the process of reading through v.v now, and someone should probably slap me and tell me to leave well enuf alone, but I have this idea that maybe I can do a little something to clarify/fortify the presence of the narrator. I don’t want to bring him out and make him overt, but I think if I can make it clear that there is someone actually telling the tales, an outsider, it will smooth over some of the structural “issues” that have always nagged me about the telling. (Chiefly, how can anyone know/remember specific moments from forty years in the past? My narrator can’t, of course, but his is telling stories, not writing history.) I’ll be on the watch for the one or two opportunities I think I need to make this happen.

And then really, for certain, absolutely, I’ll consider the novel finished!

*Thank you, Ellen Goldstein!