Of Commonplace Things: Sarah Clift on Patrick Madden’s Quotidiana


Patrick Madden, Quotidiana: Essays, University of Nebraska Press, 2010

We sometimes refer to thoughts as trains because the mind travels along a long track through different terrains and climates, caught up in the scene of the moment while only subconsciously aware of the connection to the preceding scenes. With his first book, Quotidiana, Patrick Madden gives us a first class ticket on the train of his thoughts, and it is an enjoyable ride. He also invites us to lay our own track:

So let’s think more, ponder, wonder, meander, maunder. Despite appearances to the contrary, despite the clamor and clang of true-life sensationalism in every medium, quotidian essays are being written and published all the time. They’re an antidote to the harried hullabaloo of — what? — talk shows? tabloids? the maddening crowd? And so I (and my friends, known and unknown) continue this quiet labor, stopping to smell the roses, suspicious that the tree falling in the forest does make a sound, the cat in the box might as well be alive. The exercise of writing from the infinite suggestiveness of common things has proved fruitful for me time and again, with essays sparked by considerations of garlic, diaper changing, washing grapes, a chipped tooth, and others. I’m addicted to that world’s whisper. (9-10)

Madden’s title comes from a phrase he heard while learning Spanish as a missionary in Uruguay: la vida cotidiana, meaning “everyday life.” He expands on our English equivalent, quotidian, and creates the world of Quotidiana. On his website, he defines this Quotidiana as “the land of everyday, commonplace things.”

Madden introduces us to his world in a series of ten essays. The first, “The Infinite Suggestiveness of Common Things,” is foundational, as it recounts his discovery of essaying:

During my first extended encounters with the essay, I was struck (dumbstruck, moonstruck) by those authors who wrote from seemingly insignificant, overlooked, transient things, experiences, and ideas, who were able to find within their everyday, unexceptional lives inspiration for essaying. (2)

With this first essay, Madden ensures that readers know the genre they are about to experience. Essays, as part of the creative nonfiction genre, are more than an artistic retelling of past, true events; they are anecdotes or observations with reflective meditations. The anecdotes or observations need not be grand events by themselves, but an essayist can make the smallest observation grand with his or her insights. Madden explains these attributes of an essay and thereby enhances the essay-reading experience,

Essayists are keen observers of the overlooked, the ignored, the seemingly unimportant. They can make the mundane resplendent with their meditative insights. (4)

Once he opens our eyes to the endless possibilities of the mind and, by extension the essay based on things seemingly mundane, Madden offers a recipe for a successful essay: “A successful commonplace essay will gather memories and researches, attach ideas and stories to build upward, toward meaning.” (6)

In the remaining nine essays, Madden shows how to execute this formula. Especially insightful and entertaining is his essay “Laughter.” Madden begins with the observation that his infant is just learning to laugh. This observation leads him to a third-century BC Egyptian papyrus that says God created the world through bursts of laughter. He then takes us on a journey through laughing gas, different kinds of laughter, and laughing animals. (This explains his cover art, featuring a kookaburra, formally known as the “laughing jackass.”) Madden then recounts the story of Democritus (known as the Laughing Philosopher), the etymology of laughter, and the sounds of laughter. He pauses with an anecdote about his son’s many trips to the emergency room because of foreign objects in his nose, and the doctor who laughs every time he sees them. He shows how laughter can break down social barriers with a story of his son’s peek-a-boo game with a stranger on a New Jersey train. Madden continues the string of memories, researches, ideas, and stories to build to the health benefits of laughing. The essay ends with his memory of laughing in church then a return to his infant daughter laughing.

This sequence may seem disjointed, but it is an accurate representation of what happens in our minds when one small, commonplace thing sets off our thinking. For that reason, Madden’s essays are familiar and readable. Riding his thought-train is comfortable, yet thought-provoking in its own right. Few writers can inspire their readers to take part in their craft. Yet Madden’s collection of essays inspires us to look at our commonplace, quotidian life and see that it is both wonderful and meaningful, and then to engage the essayist in each of us.

 

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Sarah Clift recently graduated from Brigham Young University with a bachelor of general studies degree, writing emphasis.  She is a writer and editor in Elk Grove, California.

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Creativity in The Other Genre: Jen Knox on Dinty W. Moore’s Between Panic and Desire


Between Panic and Desire, Dinty W. Moore, Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press, 2010

Dinty W. Moore brings a lot of well-deserved attention to the genre of creative nonfiction. He is the founding editor of Brevity, one of the first literary journals to highlight the art of creative nonfiction in short form, and he serves on the editorial board of Creative Nonfiction. Further, he teaches his craft at Ohio University, and has published two memoirs, The Accidental Buddhist and the subject of this review, Between Panic and Desire.

Knowing most of this background going in (I visited Moore’s website for a few of the aforementioned details), I had high hopes and an admitted bias toward the text. I began to read thinking, “Alright, Dinty, show me how it’s done.”

Between Panic and Desire is a memoir in parts. The book begins by way of explanation, introducing a philosophy that interweaves throughout Moore’s light-hearted, digressive prose. In the prologue, Moore recounts his curiosity about two Pennsylvania towns, one named Panic; the other, Desire. He visits each town out of sheer curiosity, in an attempt to find the origin of their names. Although the information Moore finds is minimal, this narrative introduction sets a cozy stage. As Moore sits in his car, half way between Panic and Desire, he comes to a realization: “I have been here all my life.”

This insight is rather transparent, and although it is a depiction of an actual event, the sappiness of it almost caused me to stop reading. But the art of nonfiction is not about metaphor or interpretation. It’s about narration, dynamic insight, humor, curiosity and a certain sense of inclusion the reader seeks—the sense that the author is confiding in his reader. So, I continued reading. When I reached the introduction, which included a mnemonic disclaimer and the author’s reasoning for writing the book (both seem a requisite for the genre), I got a taste of what was to come: humorous insight, self deprecating asides, an odd assortment of pop trivia and a drawing. Moore makes connections between societal norms and social blunders (including playful commentary on an exchange between Fresh Air’s Terry Gross and Gene Simmons), personal reflections and emotionally-driven interpretations, and I came to realize Moore’s narration is not sappy at all it’s just devoid of pretension.

If I finish a memoir (admittedly, I often don’t—I’m persnickety when it comes to the genre), it is inevitable that I have pieced together some portrait of the author by the time I close the book. But it didn’t take too many pages of Moore’s experimental prose before I felt this portrait emerging. I’ve never personally met Dinty W. Moore, but as I read his memoir I began to imagine a man who’d make a pleasant dinner companion. I imagine he laughs often and loudly, and that his capacity for conversation is dizzying as he seems capable of transitioning from mundane chit chat about the weather forecast to in-depth commentary about the socioeconomic impact of his choice to order the asparagus over corn at a Midwestern diner. Perhaps I’m wrong. But the very fact that I have such a detailed (albeit wholly imagined) portrait of the writer after reading his work proves that my expectations were met—Moore knows how to create a strong narrative presence.

I was impressed by Moore’s swift, witty style and his willingness to share candid analysis of, well, everything without spending a single sentence disclaiming his stance or apologizing for the connections he draws. He executes the art of digression by using a myriad of forms: essays, plays, a list and a quiz. The cohesion of theme—the pendulum swinging between panic and desire—allows Moore to tie personal experiences (and reactions) to societal norms (and abnormalities) in a frank and humorous manner.

Although I still wish that I wasn’t force-fed that initial thematic portrait of being stuck between two extremes (towns), Moore’s authorial voice quickly redeems itself. After all, the beauty of this genre is not found in the conclusions the author draws; it’s found in the ideas and experiences that allow the reader to understand how he came to them. And Moore takes his initial image: him, relaxing in a car that is parked between panic and desire, and drives it home in an extremely entertaining and dynamic way.

Jen Knox is the author of Musical Chairs, a memoir. She earned her MFA from Bennington’s Writing Seminars and currently works as a fiction editor at Our Stories Literary Journal and a Creative Writing Professor at San Antonio College. Jen’s short essays and fiction can be read in Flashquake, Foundling Review, Metazen, Slow Trains, SLAB, and Superstition Review. Jen grew up in Ohio and lives in Texas, where she is working on a novel entitled Absurd Hunger.

Last Call: Tara Masih on Sherrie Flick’s Reconsidering Happiness


Reconsidering Happiness, Sherrie Flick, University of Nebraska Press

I admire women writers who tell it like it is, don’t prettify their female characters, don’t apologize for their actions. Sherrie Flick’s Reconsidering Happiness is a dead-on exploration of women’s issues in recent decades (and men’s, peripherally), in regards to relationships with themselves and others.

Flick is known as being the co-founder of the popular Gist Street Writing Series in Pittsburgh, PA. She is also much-respected for her flash fiction, and won Flume Press’s fiction chapbook contest in 2004 for I Call This Flirting, which garnered her the title of a master of flash. So how does a writer go from the condensed time-frames and prose structures that flash demands, to the more sprawling demands of a novel?

In this case, with apparent ease. There are no signs in Flick’s prose of a writer struggling to create longer text and scenes; in fact, she follows more than one point of view. Flick’s juxtaposition of several characters works to reveal so much more about each one, as they reveal or withhold information from each other. Her main characters are Vivette and Margaret, two friends who are connected by their past experiences working in a Portsmouth, NH, bakery (which actually exists). We meet Vivette first, fresh on her expedition in an old Buick borrowed from her grandfather Joe-Joe, settling on the town of Des Moines as her new destination. Because she loves the way the words sound: “Des Moines, with those silent s’s beckoning with a sexy finger, a promise.” This is one of those wonderful details Flick sprinkles throughout to reveal character. We won’t meet Joe-Joe again, but he will hover in the background as the recipient of the postcards Vivette will write as she travels. These postcards seem a slight nod to Flick’s flash background, as she can use the cryptic messages as small stories that again reveal Vivette’s state of mind: “Haven’t wrecked the car yet. Will keep you posted. Vivette.”

Vivette doesn’t go directly to Des Moines. She detours to visit an old friend, Margaret, who has settled down, unlike her younger friend, in Lincoln, Nebraska, on a farm surrounded by flat meadows and sheep. Lots of sheep, silent witnesses to their trials and tribulations. We first meet Margaret, however, in the past, with a different relationship situation in San Francisco. How Margaret and Vivette end up in the present is the mosaic that the author deftly crafts into one seamless piece, using the two friends as foils to one another—the restless Vivette who has dallied with married men versus the more deliberate Margaret who has decided to plant her roots in one place finally, despite some imperfections that are gradually revealed in her current relationship with her husband Peter.

For me, the power of this novel lies in the natural interactions and dialog between the characters, the attention to small details, and Flick’s talent in making any scene lyrical and absorbing. I was riveted when Margaret got lost in the dark, driving home late from a bar, leaving behind a startlingly messy encounter:

Margaret continues to accelerate down the waterlogged road, but soon realizes she is lost, actually lost. Lost in Nebraska, a state whose street systems are built on the largest grid imaginable, a place where it’s impossible to lose your way. But she doesn’t recognize anything. The rain is confusing and somewhere, somehow, she made a wrong turn. Margaret pulls over. Her windshield wipers hyperactive and ineffective against the onslaught. Beyond, nothing but darkened, howling fields. She’ll turn around, head back to Lincoln, and start over again. Once she’s lost she knows it’s the only way to reset her radar.

And this is what her characters do repeatedly. Like modern-day pioneers, they continually explore their physical and emotional terrains, take stock of where they are and what they want, and continually reset their radars and their compass points. These are women who have been betrayed and who also do the betraying. Women who carve their names in bar wood and drink hard liquor, and bake and nourish. Women who keep secrets (and there are many) from others and from themselves.

Readers will want this novel to go on longer, beyond the last call of hunger and longing. They will miss Margaret and Vivette.

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Tara L. Masih is editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction (a ForeWord Book of the Year finalist) and author of Where the Dog Star Never Glows: Stories. She has published fiction, poetry, and essays in numerous anthologies and literary magazines and several limited edition illustrated chapbooks featuring her flash fiction have been published by The Feral Press. Awards for her work include first place in The Ledge Magazine’s fiction contest and Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and Best of the Web nominations. www.taramasih.com.

Undeniable Sublimity: Savannah Schroll Guz on Trailer Girl and Other Stories by Terese Svoboda


Trailer Girl and Other Stories, Terese Svoboda, University of Nebraska Press, 2009

Terese Svoboda’s narratives are demanding: she does not tell her readers how to feel about her characters; her descriptions often make the physical world less recognizable; and her story lines do not climb, arc, and fall in a conventional fashion. They often begin, disorientingly, in the middle and only allude to the true end. Moreover, her sentences must often be read more than once to truly grasp their meaning. But this makes her stories all the more rewarding because they are an exercise in intellectual and sympathetic understanding.

In Svoboda’s “Trailer Girl,” the longest work of a 17-story collection by the same name, there is a desultory quality to her main character’s first-person narrative. This seemingly unfocused monologue, by a nameless woman (who is sometimes derisively referred to as the “Trash Lady” because she rakes up detritus and picks plastic bags out of the barbed wire fence behind her trailer) requires close concentration so that her line of reasoning can be followed, and so we might better understand her unconventional actions, like eating cat food from the can and drinking, like tea, the water used to boil hot dogs. When we understand this, it’s not particularly surprising to learn that Svoboda’s narrator has seen the inside of mental institutions.

What’s of greatest interest, however, is that yes, there is logic to the unnamed woman’s unusual descriptions and obscure references. Yet, the woman’s reasoning is not necessarily the kind readers might instantly understand, and Svoboda’s ostensibly wandering narrative serves this purpose well. The woman lives uncomfortably in our world and operates by a classification system entirely her own. Take for instance, her description of a blind mechanic, who helps the trailer park manager (who is also the narrator’s childhood friend and sometime lover) move furniture, “…the mechanic who today is wearing his commando beret from the theater where he served and returned from without an audience which he is fond of pointing out to any and all…” Here, we meet a character who is most likely—although we can’t be sure—a Vietnam veteran, who returned without a welcoming crowd. Svoboda’s main character makes poignant connections between a theatrical-looking beret and its more dour implications.

A few pages earlier, the character’s oblique but expansive reference covers, in nearly one breath: an apparition of a girl she repeatedly glimpses in a nearby pasture, a girl living in the trailer park, the narrator’s own experience in group homes, and an oft-imagined vision of her two lost daughters. Svoboda writes of the girl in the pasture, “What she needs is someone to protect her, a Kate, so in the home when they lay blame, she is there, the one who asks first for another blanket and gets the No. That is why I had two, why two is all you need.”

And while we are sometimes told how the narrator feels, more often than not, we are shown. She is consistently guarded in her expression of emotion, sometimes seeming entirely devoid of it. She watches the world with a vague curiosity and almost drugged numbness, knowing her place is not to intervene but to quietly accept. Sometimes she even seems confused by what she should feel, and perhaps this comes from having previously felt too much. Svoboda gives us glimpses into her character’s past life, one defined by group homes, a series of foster families, and dismissive men who abandoned her with children even as her breasts continued to leak milk. Hers is the behavior of the abused, and Svoboda captures it perfectly.

Throughout the story, the main character watches (and hears) the abuse of the young girl named Kate. The woman details the overtures to these repeated beatings in vivid descriptions of shouts, body language, and frightened glances. Meanwhile, she and Kate seem to understand something fundamental in one another. While it is never spoken openly, it seems the narrator sees her own childhood in Kate’s. Kate, in turn, glimpses something familiar in the narrator, whose recognized insanity gives her a kind of freedom Kate does not yet enjoy. Kate’s regard for the narrator is revealed by her attempt to construct a wine bottle garden similar to one the narrator has made. However, the trailer park boys crush it, which makes another symbolic reference to the world’s assault on Kate’s creativity and emerging identity.

Where the unnamed narrator in “Trailer Girl” is a distant, resigned victim—an object of contempt to trailer park residents, Svoboda shifts the power fulcrum in the story “Psychic,” which also begins in medias res. Here, the unnamed first-person narrator, a psychic, is revealed to be female only when another character warily addresses her as “ma’am.”  Through her gift, she gains knowledge and wields this power carefully against a man, whose sinister actions are only alluded to but not definitively confirmed.

In “Polio,” told from an older child’s point of view, a decidedly nonchalant babysitter deals with a pack of children, repeatedly telling them that if they obey her commands, they will not get polio. The sitter, referred to simply as “Mrs.” seems older than described by the child, who is, according to the narrative, six years the sitter’s junior. The sitter furtively spikes her Coke with her employer’s booze and fills the bottles back to level with water. By the end, a casual remark made by the children’s mother reveals (perhaps) the reason for the sitter’s drinking, which also happens to be the reason why she shouldn’t be drinking. Svoboda deftly reveals that people’s tyrannies and vices are often fueled by more of the same.

Throughout the book, there are narrative moments that carry the vague scent of other writers. In an early December 2009 interview at Largehearted Boy, Svoboda cites William Faulkner, Italo Calvino and Donald Barthelme as her favorite writers. Certainly, the oblique, oft-dubbed postmodern stream-of-consciousness apparent in Barthelme’s works is apparent in “Trailer Girl,” “Psychic,” and the concluding story “White,” where a grandfather and grandson spray paint a barn and, on a metaphorical level, white-wash a traumatic, if abstractly revealed, event from the boy’s recent past.  Svoboda’s lyrical but almost elliptical descriptions often smack of Calvino. And certainly the subject matter, the focus on motherhood (however fleeting), and the stream-of-consciousness evident in “Trailer Girl” are reminiscent of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

All influences and literary echoes aside, Svoboda’s book bears an undeniable sublimity, even if it is hard-won through careful reading, and sometimes, re-reading. Trailer Girl, as a collection, has power to surprise with simultaneously definitive and cryptic statements, which allow for the reader’s lingering uncertainties and assumption of the worst for the characters.  Here is a portrait of humanity in all its complexity: Svoboda sketches the outline of her characters, includes more haunting details, and through the abstruse and unspoken, allows readers to fill in the darkest patches.

Purchase Trailer Girl and Other Stories

WHEN REAL LIFE IS ORDINARY: Beth S. Wright on Pamela Carter Joern’s The Plain Sense of Things


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The Plain Sense of Things, Pamela Carter Joern, University of Nebraska Press

Pamela Carter Joern’s The Floor of the Sky was an impressive first novel, published in the Flyover Fiction series from the University of Nebraska Press. For the setting of The Plain Sense of Things, her second book and also part of the series, Joern returns to rural Nebraska, where she grew up. The undercurrent of this novel-in-stories is a love for the Midwestern plains, while the surface is rocked by the frustrations and small joys of tenant farming and rural life.

Each story focuses on one or more characters, all members of the same extended family, but Joern tips the balance of perspective in favor of the women—young and old, widowed and married, all trying to find happiness despite the odds. These women are unflinching as they face the challenges of rural poverty and uncertain times, but they also reveal a desire to strike out, to stop being the good girl, to risk heartache and worse.

Mary faces the difficulty of managing her family of eight children and stepchildren after the death of her second husband. When her stepdaughter Grace denies that she’s jealous of her sister being courted, saying she doesn’t want to marry “some old hayseed farmer,” Mary declares, “Want don’t have much to do with most things.” Learning to live with what you’re given is what Mary understands life to be about, and she clearly thinks her stepdaughter needs to learn this lesson early.

This bleak outlook isn’t presented without a foil. Alice tries to straddle adulthood and childhood for a while after her marriage at age seventeen. She finds an escape from domestic responsibilities while playing Kick the Can with boys in the street, “laughing and spinning, her hands held high in the air, her laughter bubbling and carrying them along until the whole group spirals and whirls, kids falling down right and left as if they are playing statue.” Shortly thereafter, her husband, Jake, appears, and she calmly walks with him into the house.

The relationship between Alice and Jake is the crux of the novel. The stories told from Jake’s perspective portray him as emotionally fraught, hindered by his inability to find his way in the world, and dreaming of a better future that never comes. Alice ultimately appears to be the more practical of the two, and she seems resigned to a life of hardship and making do. But she too has dreams:

She sees herself out the door, up the road, swinging her arms. A melody rises in her throat. She breaks into a run, and she doesn’t stop, not for him, not for fences, not for ditches, not for miles. She flies out the door like a wild woman, a witch on a broom, her rage rolling her like a tumbleweed. She rises on the crescent moon, she splits into a glowing sun just before she sits down to tie Robert’s shoe and read all four boys a story.

Here Joern makes a break from her careful, spare prose used to describe the everyday lives of her characters and uncovers deep emotional hunger. The sentences are suddenly longer and more fluid, evocative and metaphorical, pulling the reader into Alice’s dreams and desires, the little bit of wildness she holds onto from her brief childhood. Her powerful yearning leaps off the page, and then she turns away from her fantasies and goes back to caring for children and home. Joern induces the reader’s sympathy for Alice’s anger and thwarted desires—and for her tenderness.

The plain sense of things is what the characters try to grasp at all times, but sometimes it isn’t enough. Dreams and fantasies are what make life worth living, after all, especially when real life is ordinary, filled with hardship, or simply disappointing. Joern skillfully captures the tensions and contradictions of her characters’ lives, drawing the reader into their sorrows and simple pleasures, their rage and their momentary joys.