Fruit Snacks and Marlboros

by Eric Beebe

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Growing up with my grandparents next door made them the de facto babysitters for my siblings and me. Their house is a white Colonial with a wraparound porch, attached to a barn used for storage. We’d take a short walk down a “secret” path in the tree line that opened to my grandpa’s vegetable garden and the metal lattices of my grandma’s grapevines with clusters of berry bushes behind them. My brother, sister, and I would help pick berries in the summer for jam, only to eat half of them out of our buckets. As the seasons changed, the wafting scent of fresh grapes would summon us back through the path to do the same to them, rolling the fruit in our mouths until the skins peeled off and we sucked their cores down like hard candy before spitting out the seeds.

Between careers in aviation and politics, my grandpa was often out of the house, which made it my grandma’s domain. It could have been another country. We lived by different laws under her watch. “I’m not your parents. Do what you want, but don’t piss me off,” was one of her lasting mantras, but she was far from neglectful. In her wisdom, my grandma devised ways of containing us, whether it be in front of a TV running Batman: The Animated Series, in a room full of toys collected since the 1960s, or equipped with markers and paper that always seemed thicker than other kinds and smelled like old books. She’d sit at one head of the kitchen table, behind a perpetually soiled ashtray and a Christmas mug full of coffee. At her side, we’d gorge ourselves on the snacks she stocked and beg her to let us light her next cigarette, so we could play with the lighter. Burning Marlboros became the smell of a tranquil freedom, and strawberry Gushers its flavor. To this day a pack of gummies or a stroll past the right smoker takes me back as fast as any madeleine ever did for Proust.

The times my grandpa was around, he was usually focused on work. He’d tolerate our use of his copy machine for prints of hands or any action figures that fit under its cover, but only for so long. A couple of times, he invited my brother and me to help him clear out brush around the property with sharpened steel swords that stood as tall as I did, which he kept in a closet of files and old military garb. At my grandma’s behest, he’d monitor us in their musty basement, while we crafted weapons of our own. I still have a pair of homemade nunchakus and my first sword: a dowel rod sharpened on one end with a floral brass cabinet handle for a handguard. My brother and I would square off, each with our own sword in hand, exchanging taps. Lunges weren’t allowed on account of the pointed tips. We were careful not to damage any nearby furniture or knock any tchotchkes from their places on the mantel. My grandma used to tell us her favorite methods for murder and body disposal, and she made frequent jokes about poisoning our food. No matter that the threat was in good fun, we heeded her warnings.

In adolescence, my visits were filled less with crafts or sword fights and more with Grand Theft Auto, since my parents wouldn’t allow it in our house yet. At one point, my grandma tried to teach me her skills in stained glass art, but I gave up after burning my finger on a soldering iron. As bans on certain video games lifted and I learned to drive, I visited less and less, to the point that one winter she believed a telephone scammer claiming I was in a Brazilian prison in need of bail. She’d tried to call my cellphone, but I slept through the buzzing.

Now, my visits come mostly to retrieve the family dog, whose aging bladder requires more attention than work schedules allow. Mornings, before I leave, the sight of a leash sends my dog into such a frenzy that she forgets her hip dysplasia and bounds up on two feet, until she’s on her way to visit Grandma. Sometimes, she runs there herself, if left outside unchecked. Her excitement—waxing with age, instead of waning—reminds me of the simple joy that used to draw me over. I think to myself, maybe today I’ll visit longer, but later I’ll remember the writing I have to get done or the plans I’ve made, and best intentions dissolve, leaving a sense of hurry and guilt.


Last Week/This Week: Plath, Thoreau and video games

by Ashley Bales

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A new volume of Sylvia Plath’s letters were released, a piece of news I discovered first through criticism of the UK edition’s choice to depict Plath as “a blonde in a bikini,” and second in a blurb from Sehgal’s piece in The New York Times discussing Frieda Hughes’ (Plath and Hughes’ daughter) defense of her father. Of the things I care about regarding any publication with Plath’s name on it, low on the list are her beachwear choices and her relationship with her husband.  As for so many young women, Plath was an icon I couldn’t spend enough time with--pouring over her novel, poems, and journals--but I’ve never particularly given a shit about her relationship with Hughes. I’m interested in her writing, not her biography, or her celebrity.  Celebrity is the real issue here and the treatment of female celebrities in contrast to male.  You certainly don’t have to think hard to come up with some male literary suicides where popular interpretations of the act don’t rest on victimization. If Plath was a victim, it is the least interesting thing about her and I would rather remain ignorant of the details than let it shape my interpretation of her work.

Is it indicative of certain continually depressing realities that Faber (the UK publisher) chose a bikini-ed image for their cover? Sure. Is there value in using Plath and Faber’s presentation of her work as exemplar of these issues? Potentially. Does it also place feminist debates before celebration of Plath’s work? Certainly, and I can’t help but mourn the continued need to celebrate successful women for their sex before their substance.

On the subject of journals, Wulf, writing for The Atlantic, discusses Thoreau’s “real masterpiece… …the 2 million word journal he kept until six months before he died.” It depicts Throreau’s struggle with balancing literature and science. Thoreau criticized scientists for their unengaging reports. He believed Linnaeus’ binomial nomenclature was poetry, and stated that “Facts fall from the poetic observer like ripe seeds.” Easy for him to say. There is certainly no limit to the poetic details that can be pulled from nature and the more you study the natural the world the more beautifully specific and interconnected these examples can become. The conflict comes in how scientists define rigor and bias, how can you explore the poetry of specificity when metaphor and symbolism are deemed misleading distractions?

For a student interested in a writer’s mind and process, journals are precious; so much more valuable than curated autobiography or criticism’s contextualization. And to avoid hypocrisy, here is Plath, speaking through her journals from the summer of 1958, when she was 26, two years after graduating from Smith College and two years before the publication of her first poetry collection, The Colossus:

Paralysis is still with me. It is as if my mind stopped and let the phenomenon of nature-shiny green rosebugs and orange toadstools and screaking woodpeckers—roll over me like a juggernaut—as if I had to plunge to the bottom of non-existence, of absolute fear, before I can rise again… …Lines occur to me and stop dead: “The tiger lily’s spotted throat.” And then it is an echo of Eliot’s “The tiger in the tiger pit,” to the syllables and the consonance. I observe: “The mulberry berries redden under leaves.” And stop. I think the worst thing is to exteriorize these jitterings… …Defensively, I say I know nothing: lids shut over my mind. And this is the old way of lying: I can’t be responsible, I know nothing. Grub-white mulberries redden under leaves… …Humbly, I can begin these things. Start in two realities that move me, probe their depths, angles, dwell on them. I want to know all kinds of people, to have the talent ready, practiced, ordered, to use them, to ask them the right questions. I forget. I must not for get, not panic, but walk about bold and curious and observant as a newspaper reporter, developing my way of articulation and ordering, losing nothing, not sitting under a snail-shell.

This week on the blog, Eric Beebe writes about childhood memories of his grandmother, Daniel Johnson explores video game narratives, and Shawna Perrin discovers punk-rock.


Ashley Bales is a current student of The Mountainview low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.  She holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology, teaches in the Math and Science Department at Pratt Institute and is web editor for Assignment Magazine.

Student Picks: Vittorini, Foer, Follett

Arrun Chittur-- I was drawn to Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am by the speculative story line -  the novel’s catalyst is an earthquake that leads to existential conflict in Israel. Foer uses meandering paragraphs in which the narrator reflects on the main character’s (Jacob) behalf, focusing the reader not on the natural disaster and ensuing conflict, but on the ‘real’ story.

Jacob and Julia Bloch, married 15 years, have three sons and a house in suburbia. Jacob descends from a line of proud Jewish patriarchs who passively remind the family of their history. And their unfulfilled obligation. As Jacob and Julia’s marriage unravels, the children are forced into young adulthood and Jacob becomes more timid and cautious, which only exacerbates his distance from Julia. Israel suffers from catastrophic loss, as the family does in the death of Jacob’s grandfather. Yet Jacob seems content to live in the shadow of a more interesting life he’s too afraid to live.  

Then as if on cue, you enter the second half of the book and see pieces of yourself in Jacob. You ask yourself about opportunities lost, what you ‘could’ be doing. You remember the lesson, that it’s never too late. Until it is. 

Kirah Brouillette-- People often escape trauma through art, stories and music. For me it’s sometimes opera – the perfect culmination of them all. The lyrical and visual beauty of it soothes me. When I picked up Elio Vittorini’s novel Conversations In Sicily, written in 1937, I didn’t expect to find the opera. Yet I did.

Set in Mussolini-era Italy, it’s the story of Silvestro, a man gone numb from the spread of fascism, war and death. He journeys home to his mother, meeting characters along the way who reveal huge themes through careful dialogue: fascist rule, economic inequality, broken familial bonds. From its format in sections reminiscent of movements, to the tactile descriptions of Sicily that mimic the visual glory of opera, to the wonderful use of sound and repetition to create a musical cadence to each paragraph, this novel is a masterpiece of operatic imitation, political commentary and lyrical prose. Vittorini – himself a fan of opera – claimed to have used the operatic overtones purposely, so it would pass the fascist censors of his time.

In a world that feels as though we, too, are inundated with death and war (ideological and actual), Conversations In Sicily is the soothing we all need.

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Margaret McNellis-- Pillars of the Earth was my first exposure to Ken Follett, and I was transfixed. Not only does this epic novel present multiple point-of-view characters without bogging down the prose or losing the reader, but it touches on issues that continue to challenge people today, even though it takes place in the twelfth century. Follett weaves in ten years of research into Romantic and Gothic architecture throughout England, modeling his fictional Kingsbridge Cathedral on the Salisbury Cathedral.

The story covers several main characters, some from childhood into middle age, and some into their elder years. Follett juxtaposes the struggles of the poor and the rich, weaving them together to show how society relies on people from all walks of life.

Pillars is what inspired me to write historical fiction, and I often look to Follett for how to incorporate historical facts and cultures into my work. It’s the first in the Kingsbridge Trilogy, followed by World Without End and Column of Fire; the latter was released in September 2017. Column, which takes place in Renaissance England, is next on my list of non-MFA books to read, and I’m chomping at the bit to dig into it.

Self-Storage

by David Moloney

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I’m not attached to possessions. I come from a middle class Irish family, where our heirlooms are silverware sets passed down through maybe a generation and a half (as “priceless” as they are worthless) and photo albums. Those are kept tucked away like rare coin collections. But otherwise, we only keep what we can house. Anything more is easily discarded.

This is to say, I was unprepared when a year ago I started working part-time at a storage facility in Lowell. The grounds have about four hundred units. The first floor is accessible from the outside, the second floor units are indoors and up a flight of stairs. My job is to scan the grounds for faulty doors, trash clean-up, run payments, and open units for new customers.

On Storage Wars, you see warring professional buyers purchase units after only a peek from the doorway and “discover” a rare collectible or two.  So, when the facility scheduled an auction for delinquent units, I excitedly signed up to work it. I wanted to rip open the units in front of fat wadded treasure hunters like Dave Hester, watch the auctioneer with a cowboy hat rattle off numbers faster than the Micro Machine dude. I wanted to see buyers chewing their fingernails, doing math on their phones, calling their partners in a last second frenzy. It was exciting television, but it wasn’t reality.

The auction was held on a chilly morning in March. A maintenance worker cut the locks off the units the night before. No one had seen inside of them but the customers who had failed to live up to the contract. Trucks and vans lined the dead end road, people stood outside the office smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. They looked tired, cold, and, I hate to say, downtrodden.  They looked like someone was forcing them to be there.

The auctioneer was no different. He had a button down shirt, light overcoat, and wrinkled khakis. He wore dirty sneakers and cautioned me to only open the units when he gave the order. He wasn’t wearing a cowboy hat nor looked like he’d ever owned one.

The twenty or so professional buyers followed me to the first unit, a five by ten. The auctioneer gave a nod and I pulled it open. Some buyers huddled around me with tiny flashlights; some used the ones on their phones. The small unit turned off most buyers immediately. When the auctioneer cleared the crowd, I took a look inside: a shop vac, filled black trash bags, picture frames, a cordless phone. The auctioneer opened the bidding at $15. His cadence was poorly executed. No one bid until his final, “Do I hear fifteen, ten, five? No five, no five, how about five?” A woman raised her hand and after he pointed quickly her way she walked off and he told me to close the unit. I caught up with the buyer on the way to the next one. I asked her what she saw worth buying. She told me the shop vac has gotta be worth at least five.

There were units that smelled so badly I couldn’t believe they sold. The buyer’s had to put up a hundred dollar deposit and empty the unit within 72 hours. Everything. Even the trash. Some buyers bought three units of junk and spent the next three days cleaning them out. One buyer, a man who was wearing the same clothes as the day of the auction, told me he had to rent a dumpster.

“When all’s said and done,” he said, “I might make two-hundred dollars.” He had two consignment shops that brought in a lot of foot traffic, he explained, but not many buyers.  He seemed happy about it, though.

When I took the job, it was the customers that initially interested me. I was sure I’d meet people in-between homes, awaiting a sale or purchase, maybe a husband tossed out and living in an apartment until he could rally himself. But I found those cases are rare. Most of the customers are just people with too much stuff.  In the end, it reminded me more of Hoarders than Storage Wars.  The units fed the compulsion to accumulate; as if the most successful hoarders were the ones who’d found the means to house their possessions at whatever means possible, for as long as they could. 


David Moloney is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.  He currently teaches writing at UMASS Lowell and Southern New Hampshire University.

If U.S. Presidents were Novels

by Phil Lemos

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In my ongoing efforts to understand the world in literary terms, I find myself wondering which novel each U.S. president would be.  Some of them (James Garfield, Martin van Buren) would be obscure novels of little importance.  Others would be more interesting.

Here are some of the results I’ve settled on:

GEORGE WASHINGTON: Charlotte Temple, by Susanna Rowson. A young woman is seduced by an English soldier and brought to America, where he subsequently mistreats and abandons her.  The first best-selling novel in the new nation was in many ways a metaphor for the Thirteen Colonies’ struggle for independence.  Just as Charlotte Temple established themes and trends in American literature, such as tales of seduction and the virtues of resistance, Washington established precedents for the nation’s head of state (e.g. accepting a salary for being president even though it was against his personal wishes, retiring after two terms).

THOMAS JEFFERSON: Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov.  Jefferson is a celebrated—Founding Father, served two terms of peace and economic prosperity—and controversial—constitutionality of the Louisiana Purchase, dropping Vice-President Aaron Burr from the ticket after his first term—president with a complex and sometimes unflattering—slave owner—legacy.  He’s paralleled by a critically celebrated and controversial novel about an ugly topic: sexual desire for underage girls.  Unresolved? Whether Jefferson would engage in cross-country travel with a 12-year-old girl, or send Lolita away with Lewis and Clark during their voyage to Oregon Country.

WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON: The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, by George Saunders. At 130 pages, TBAFROP barely qualifies as a novel – it’s generally referred to as a novella.  And with a 31-day tenure as chief executive before dying of pneumonia, William Henry Harrison barely qualifies as a president.  Because his presidency was a mere blip in American history, we don’t know if WHH’s policy initiatives would’ve advocated genocide, as President Phil did by forcibly disassembling his neighborly Inner Hornerites following a border dispute with Outer Horner.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.  I’m resisting the temptation to go with Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, despite Lincoln’s prowess at conquering the undead.  His courage and leadership in tackling issues of race during the American Civil War were emulated in a more literary form a century later in the form of Atticus Finch and his daughter Scout, who live in a South still reeling from the effects of the war.  Also, like Atticus, Lincoln spent time as a practicing lawyer.

FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut.  Just as FDR eschewed tradition by running for and winning a third – and later a fourth – term as president, Kurt Vonnegut subverted the rules of fiction by inserting hand-drawn pictures into the narrative, telling the story in a non-chronological fashion, and by means of a narrator who breaks the fourth wall and introduces himself.  It also makes sense for FDR to be represented by a novel that takes place partially during World War II, in which the firebombing of Dresden plays a key role.

RONALD REAGAN: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  It was “Morning in America” during Reagan’s presidency.  Americans were generally happy with the direction of the country and propelled Reagan to two landslide victories.  Meanwhile, it’s the late-night side of morning in Gatsby, as the swingers of 1920s Long Island pursue the Jazz Age version of the American Dream.  Alas, nobody got what they ultimately wanted in Gatsby, and while the 1980s were generally an era of prosperity and the end of the Cold War, they also foreshadowed huge budget deficits and the coming War on Terror. 

BILL CLINTON:  Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James.  Just because.

DONALD TRUMP: Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville.  An enraged leader out for revenge against an object of dubious hazard, rallying people formerly on the fringes of society to lash out in support of his cause, ignoring foreshadowing and historical analogies along the way.  “Call me Ishmael” is one of the most famous opening lines of a novel ever written, while “covfefe” is one of the most famous accidental tweets ever written. The novel doesn’t end well; everyone but the narrator dies in the end, while Moby Dick swims away, unvanquished.  The fate of the nation?  To be determined.