David Eric Tomlinson

Author | Words and Stuff

Reading at The Wild Detectives Bookstore (Dallas)

Above+All+Men+Official+Front+CoverDavid and local Dallas writer Matt Bondurant will both be reading alongside debut novelist Eric Shonkwiler in support of his book tour promoting Above All Men. Copies of Above All Men will be available for purchase, and Shonkwiler will be signing.

Bookstore has a café that serves coffee, espresso, baked goods, pastries, and cheese plates, and a bar with local drafts, bottled beer, and Spanish wines for purchase.

Free and open to the public.

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Playlist for “American Prayer”

These songs served as inspiration for my first novel, “American Prayer”, which I’m currently revising. I’d listen to them while writing, jogging, driving in the car, whatever. Listen up, there’s some powerful stuff here.

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Douglas Kearney on Fatherhood as Inspiration

Also, Doug’s great interview on NPR about this new collection.

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“Genius is the recovery of childhood at will.”
– Arthur Rimbaud

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A Post-Graduate DIY MFA Reading List

Several years ago I quit my job and started writing a novel. Since then, I’ve spent a good chunk of every weekday reading, writing and thinking about that story. To stay focused, I put together a reading list and wrote brief reviews of those books.

Though it took twice as long as I thought it would – and I ended up reading twice as many books – my first novel is now complete. The reading list was so integral to my development as an author that I wanted to do it all over again. Below is the list I’ll tackle as I start writing the next book … a sort of post-graduate do-it-yourself MFA reading list:

  1. The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
  2. The Recognitions by William Gaddis
  3. The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shacochis
  4. Swimming in the Volcano by Bob Shacochis
  5. The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
  6. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
  7. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
  8. The Shadow of the Shadow by Paco Ignacio Taibo II
  9. Returning as Shadows by Paco Ignacio Taibo II
  10. Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
  11. The Sinaloa Story by Barry Gifford
  12. The Barbarian Nurseries by Héctor Tobar
  13. At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcon
  14. The City and the City by China Miéville
  15. Truth Like the Sun by Jim Lynch
  16. Querencia by Stephen Bodio
  17. Provinces of Night by William Gay
  18. Damascus Gate by Robert Stone
  19. In The Shadow of Young Girls in Flower by Marcel Proust
  20. Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
  21. Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta
  22. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
  23. The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya
  24. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  25. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  26. No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
  27. Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru
  28. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
  29. C by Tom McCarthy
  30. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  31. The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
  32. Personae by Sergio de la Pava
  33. The Deadly Percheron by John Franklin Bardin
  34. A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews
  35. The Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West
  36. The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing
  37. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
  38. Nightmare Alley by William Lindsey Gresham
  39. A Scanner Darkly by Phillip K. Dick
  40. Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
  41. The Body Artist by Don DeLillo
  42. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
  43. Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra
  44. Atonement by Ian McEwan
  45. Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
  46. Double Indemnity by James M. Cain
  47. Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
  48. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
  49. Room by Emma Donoghue
  50. Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden
  51. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
  52. The Mexico City Reader by Rubén Gallo
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DIY MFA Reading List: “Our Story Begins” by Tobias Wolff

I’ve been hearing a lot about Tobias Wolff recently. After studying the Collected Works of Raymond Carver last year, I watched the Criterion Collection edition of Robert Altman’s film “Short Cuts”, a jazz-inspired pastiche of Carver stories set against the paranoid backdrop of early 1990s Los Angeles. In a documentary included on DVD’s bonus features, Wolff weighs in on Carver’s uniquely bleak sensibility, describing with wonder that artist’s attraction to the darker side of the human soul and his methodical process of revision.

Wolff’s work couldn’t be more different from what we think of as Raymond Carver’s (“Leviathan” being a notable exception). I mean this as a compliment – the stories assembled in “Our Story Begins” are told with a patient, steady hand that manages to avoid overly sparse or idiosyncratic tricks of language. Though on the surface these characters are just as doomed and hapless as Carver’s, Wolff manages in many cases to mine some buried vein of hope that pulls the narrative back from the brink of total despair.

Take “Desert Breakdown, 1968”, where a pregnant Krystal is left stranded in a shady desert backwater with her toddler son. Surrounded by threatening locals who may or may not have violence on their minds, Krystal finally realizes about her husband: “Mark was not there. As if she had really believed he would be there. Krystal kicked the wall with her bare foot. The pain made clear what she had been pretending not to know: that he had never really been there and never would be there in any way that mattered.” Inspired by this insight and empowered by her anger, Krystal manages to assert herself and gain the upper hand in what had seemed like a hopeless situation.

This is the kind of emotional epiphany we often want – and fail to receive – from the typical minimalist American short story. While Carver and Williams and other proponents of dirty realism might leave us breathless with despair, sucker-punched in the gut by banality or horror, Wolff allows his characters to move beyond the paralysis imposed by circumstance and move on. This is true even in the face of certain death, as in the wonderful “Bullet in the Brain”. In it, a man’s life flashes before his eyes in the microseconds after being shot in the head:

This is what he remembered. Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass, the whir of insects, himself leaning against a tree as the boys of the neighborhood gather for a pickup game. He looks on as the others argue the relative genius of Mantle and Mays. They have been worrying this subject all summer, and it has become tedious to Anders: an oppression, like the heat.

Then the last two boys arrive, Coyle and a cousin of his from Mississippi. Anders has never met Coyle’s cousin before and will never see him again. He says hi with the rest but takes no further notice of him until they’ve chosen sides and someone asks the cousin what position he wants to play. “Shortstop,” the boy says. “Short’s the best position they is.” Anders turns and looks at him. He wants to hear Coyle’s cousin repeat what he’s just said, though he knows better than to ask. The others will think he’s being a jerk, ragging the kid for his grammar. But that isn’t it, not at all – it’s that Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music. He takes the field in a trance, repeating them to himself.

The bullet is already in the brain; it won’t be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet’s tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can’t be helped. But for now Anders can still make time. Time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, they is, they is.

It’s true that this collection is fueled by the threat of violence, fear, and loneliness. Wolff understands that this tension is required to keep us reading. We are human, after all … every one of us will die some day. This is enough of horror, Wolff seems to argue. In the meanwhile, why not make time to sit together around the campfire and tell a few tall tales?

This is honest, empathetic, heartfelt storytelling. It’s fitting that the author includes us – the reader – right in the title of his collection. These are “our” stories, indeed.

(This review was originally published at Zouch Magazine)

This review is one in a series for what I’m calling the The DIY MFA in Creative Writing.

Click here for the comprehensive listing of titles, and check back often for updates on other selections from the list.

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DIY MFA Reading List: “Geronimo Rex” by Barry Hannah

Holding your breath can be a career-ending habit for any skydiver. Caught up in the moment, it is all too easy to forget this most basic of bodily functions. Then pass out, forget to pull the rip cord, and fall witless to an early death. To protect against such a fate, military paratroopers fill their lungs with air and shout the word “Geronimo” before leaping from the plane. The word keeps them breathing, and alive, amidst the dangerous swirl of adrenaline and gravity.

Barry Hannah’s “Geronimo Rex” reads with the breathless intensity of a skydiver’s plummet to the earth. Published in 1972, the story was Hannah’s first novel, and was nominated for a National Book Award in 1973. It tells the scattered but hilarious tale of young Harry Monroe as he tries to navigate the raunchy and troubled swirl of his adolescence in Dream of Pines, Louisiana during the 1960s. Hannah, whose off-kilter stylistic sensibilities were displayed so brilliantly in the short story collection “Airships”, pulls no punches in this first-person account of a bigoted yet big-hearted youth trying to make sense of the changes sweeping over a South besotted by its own flawed conception of self.

The story begins with young Harry Monroe watching the Dream of Pines marching band practice on the football field. Hannah’s prose approaches something resembling religious fervor when he writes about music:

First time they hit the field at an early September football game, it was celestial – a blue marching orchestra dropped out of the blue stars. The spectators just couldn’t imagine this big and fine a noise. They were so good the football teams hesitated to follow them; the players trickled out late to the second half, not believing they were good enough to step on the same turf that the Dream of Pines band had stepped on. The whites living on the border of the mills heard it, and it was so spectacular to the ear, emanating from near the colored high school, they thought it must be evil. I mean this was a band that played Sousa marches and made the sky bang together … the fact probably was, by what I saw and heard that afternoon hiding under the bleachers at the colored football field, Dream of Pines was the best high school band in at least the world … They made you want to pick up a rifle and just get killed somewhere.

As you can see, Hannah is no stranger to hyperbole. And while the story grows increasingly offbeat and cartoonish as the novel progresses, the cumulative effect of Hannah’s impossibly comic metaphors is transfixing. There is very little in the way of what might be called plot here: Harry Monroe outgrows Dream of Pines, where “we had teachers quitting all the time for reasons of pregnancy, higher pay in the insurance field, or personal despair.” Harry heads to college, becomes fixated with the idea that he is some whitebread reincarnation of Geronimo, and together with his roommate tries to dispense a hamhanded kind of justice to a white supremacist peripherally involved in the murder of Medgar Evars. Along the way Harry half-heartedly tries his hand at music, falls in and out of an immature brand of love, gets married, and realizes that the colored bandleader named Harley Butte might be the only hero he’s ever known.

Butte seems to me the real center of this book, and I wondered why Hannah did not spend more pages on his story. A musical genius, a child of the South struggling to maintain his musical integrity against the flood of rock-and-roll mediocrity sweeping the nation, Butte is a doomed symbol of the South these characters wax nostalgic about:

“Where’s your band?” I said.

“And what the hell’re you doing here?” said Harley. “I been looking for you on TV. Everybody likes those Beatles. I thought you mighta got in with them.”

“It’s been a long time. I’ve been in med school.”

“Who told you to do that?” He seemed angry.

“On my own. I haven’t played my horn for three years.”

“What’d they tell you in college?”

“I told him, Harley. He was playing good trumpet,” Silas jumped in.

“I know he was playing good trumpet. He got a scholarship on playing trumpet.” He hung down his arms, disappointed, disappointed in me almost to the point of wrath. “I’ll bet somebody told you music doesn’t usually make money. Yeah, I’ve heard that enough times, them telling me.”
… “You have good music here.” Harley suddenly pulled out a band piece called “Charlemagne.” Lower on the page was the composer’s name: H. J. Butte. “This is yours truly.” I examined the score. It was a march, full of runs. In the margins were directives; I should say imperatives, with exclamation points, and inside the cover was a short, exhorting essay on how this piece must be played. The publisher was New York firm.

“I can’t think right off any band that could cut this,” I said.

“My band can cut it,” said Harley.

Hannah’s disjointed rebel yell of a story proves that the written word – even at its most obscene and discomfiting – has a power that cannot be denied. Or, in the words of Harry Monroe: “The band to me was like a river tearing down a dam when they played, and you just don’t hang around finding out what’s imperfect when that happens.”

This review is one in a series for what I’m calling the The DIY MFA in Creative Writing.

Click here for the comprehensive listing of titles, and check back often for updates on other selections from the list.

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DIY MFA Reading List: “Disgrace” by J.M. Coetzee

Some scholars believe that human speech developed primarily to assuage our collective fear of death. Or, as professor David Lurie puts it in J.M. Coetzee’s riveting novel “Disgrace“: “the origins of speech lie in song, and the origins of song in the need to fill out with sound the overlarge and rather empty human soul.”

Professor David Lurie’s soul is indeed empty. A middling poetry professor in Cape Town, South Africa, Lurie is filled with desire but lacking in passion, the key ingredient to unlocking the great works he explicates to his young, glassy-eyed students. Twice divorced, fifty-two years old, and estranged from his daughter Lucy, Lurie “has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.” But after being abandoned by his favorite escort, Lurie seduces a young student of his, and the not-so-consensual sex between them becomes a big problem for the teacher.

Lurie is fired from his post and retreats to his daughter Lucy’s smallholding in the South African countryside. Lucy is an old soul, a gentle and understanding spirit who trains and kennels dogs alongside neighbors who have, until very recently, been subjected to decades of dehumanizing treatment under apartheid. Then, in a shocking act of violence, three men invade Lucy’s home, gang rape her, and set her father on fire with lighter fluid.

Though the physical wounds heal quickly, both father and daughter spend the remainder of this novel wading through the emotional aftermath of the attack. In spare and surprisingly non-political prose, Coetzee explores the double-edged sword that is power. Lurie’s near-rape of the student in Cape Town, where he is a powerful but apathetic teacher, could be an allegory of South Africa under apartheid. But out in the post-apartheid countryside the dynamics have been reversed, and it is his daughter who must atone for the older man’s sins.

This is a difficult, and wonderfully-constructed story – deceptively easy to read, every sentence weighted with some double meaning. Coetzee wisely skirts any overtly political analysis of his homeland. He is more concerned with the power of language to make sense of – and justify, and enable, and hide, and wonder at, and atone for – the disgraceful acts of human history. The written word can be used to codify our worst natures, as was done under apartheid.

Or it can serve as a warning, a judgment, and an example to future generations:

There is no way in which he can evade the poem …

‘So, what kind of creature is this Lucifer?’

… like a sleeper summoned to life, the boy responds. ‘He does what he feels like. He doesn’t care if it’s good or bad. He just does it.’

‘Exactly. Good or bad, he just does it. He doesn’t act on principle but on impulse, and the source of his impulses is dark to him. Read a few lines further: “His madness was not of the head, but heart.” A mad heart. What is a mad heart?’

He is asking too much …

‘Never mind. Note that we are not asked to condemn this being with the mad heart, this being with whom there is something constitutionally wrong. On the contrary, we are invited to understand and sympathize. But there is a limit to sympathy. For though he lives among us, he is not one of us. He is exactly what he calls himself: a thing, this is, a monster. Finally, Byron will suggest, it will not be possible to love him, not in the deeper, more human sense of the word. He will be condemned to solitude.’

Lurie is unable to evade the judgment inherent in Byron’s poem. His lecture on Lucifer brushes too closely against the hem of his own irrational nature, foreshadowing the lonely hermit he will become.

Coetzee does have his flawed and aging antihero develop a stunted sort of empathy in the later stages of the book. We are asked to feel sorry for Lurie in his new calling – euthanizing sick and abandoned dogs in the South African countryside. But it will not be possible for the reader to love him.

There is a limit, after all, to sympathy.

(This review was originally published at Zouch Magazine)

This review is one in a series for what I’m calling the The DIY MFA in Creative Writing.

Click here for the comprehensive listing of titles, and check back often for updates on other selections from the list.

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DIY MFA Reading List: “Escapes” by Joy Williams

Pity the character who inhabits a Joy Williams short story, for there is little happiness in store for them there. Williams got her start in the 1970s and 80s, at the height of the minimalist period known as “K-Mart Realism”, when authors such as Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, and Bobbie Ann Mason were reinventing the short form with stark, sparse tales of working class anti-heroes being kneecapped by the pressures of daily life. But where Carver is often bleak bordering on noir, the world of Joy Williams offers a more magical – and often more satisfying – route to despair.

Williams has said of her fiction that “the conundrum of literature is that it’s not supposed to say anything”. Unable or unwilling to articulate a source for their existential angst, the characters in Escapes wander blind through a kind of moral vacuum, stumbling past any sign of a unifying force – like intimacy, passion, or faith – that might help them rise above misfortune.

Take the emotionally immature Lucy in the brilliant story “Rot”. Lucy’s much older husband buys an antique car rusting from the core (“Rot like this cannot be stayed”, a strangely prophetic old mechanic tells the couple). Lucy argues that the car “was meant to know the open road … I think we should drive it till it drops.” But the husband has fetishized this memento to his lost youth, and ends up demolishing a wall to install the decaying automobile in their living room. In the end, Lucy understands that she is beginning to outgrow her husband when she can say, with real certainty, “I never did want to be a part of everything”.

Lucy’s realization, which is framed in opposition to some oppressive force, is typical of the epiphanies here. It’s enlightenment by exclusion. Indeed, the first word spoken by a narrator in this collection is “No.” It will take these characters an eternity to uncover what they want, approaching life in this fashion. Meanwhile, they practice a rough-and-tumble sort of affection, one “of daring and deception, hopes and little lies.”

And the lies help them survive. In the lovely story “The Skater”, young Molly is visiting boarding schools with her shell-shocked parents. We learn that Molly’s sister has died recently. In “The Skater”, the author presents us with a world that, by its very design, dooms its denizens to destruction: “In mythical stories, it seems, there were two ways to disaster. One of the ways was to answer an unanswerable question. The other was to fail to answer an unanswerable question.”

You’re screwed either way, it seems. And so rather than answer the unanswerable, these characters lie to themselves and to one another. Their fictions offer a freedom real life won’t allow, as Molly describes in “The Skater”, after telling a minor fib about her dead sister to a potential classmate:

Molly shrugs. She feels happy, happier than she has in a long time. She has brought Martha back from the dead and put her in school. She has given her a room, friends, things she must do. It can go on and on. She has given her a kind of life, a place in death. She has freed her.

“The Skater” ends with a beautiful image. Molly’s father Tom has gone down into a cellar looking for a whiskey glass, where he stumbles on an old skating rink beside a frozen lake. He is soon joined by his wife Annie:

Tom goes down into the cellar for the glasses. The skates, their runners bright, are jumbled upon the shelves. The frozen lake glitters in the window. He pushes open the door and there it is, the ice. He steps out into it. Annie, in their room, waits without taking off her coat, without looking at the bottle. Tom takes a few quick steps and then slides. He is wearing a suit and tie, his good shoes. It is a windy night and the trees clatter with the wind and the old inn’s sign creaks on its chains. Tom slides across the ice, his hands pushed out, then he holds his hands behind his back, going back and forth in the space where the light is cast. There is no skill without the skates, he knows, and probably no grace without them either, but it is enough to be here under the black sky, cold and light and moving. He wants to be out here. He wants to be out here with Annie.

From a window, Molly sees her father on the ice. After a moment, she sees her mother moving toward him, not skating, but slipping forward, making her way. She sees their heavy awkward shapes embrace.

Molly sees them, already remembering it.

Despite Williams’ proscriptions about fiction, she seems to be saying something of real import with these sad, moving little stories. Loneliness and despair cast long shadows over the possibility of any real, or sustained, sense of joy. But the tender moments shine that much brighter for all the surrounding darkness.

(This review was originally published at Zouch Magazine)

This review is one in a series for what I’m calling the The DIY MFA in Creative Writing.

Click here for the comprehensive listing of titles, and check back often for updates on other selections from the list.

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DIY MFA Reading List: “The Collected Stories” by Amy Hempel

Amy Hempel is a master of the short story: praised by critics, adored by novelists, and imitated by creative writing students around the globe. Which is to say you’ve probably never heard of her. A contemporary of the more masculine (and more famous) short story writers like Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, Hempel has never written a full-length novel. Her Collected Stories presents 400 pages of stories perfected over 20 years, strangely intricate puzzlers enlisting her reader, in one collaborative effort after another, to question the very nature of the consciousness doing the reading.

Hempel’s stories reflect a discontent with the traditional view of narrative: a product (the story), produced by one person (the writer), for consumption by another (the reader). This dynamic is too one-sided for Hempel. Language itself is a kind of a lie, Hempel argues, an abstraction of reality. And she’s trying to show us something real about ourselves. The author can only do that by transcending language, and involving us in the story.

And so logic is turned on its head. Phrases are turned inside out, love is turned into loss, and the reader is turned into a kind of voyeuristic co-author. Here is Hempel addressing us directly, in the final paragraphs of her short story “The Harvest”: “The man of a week, whose motorcycle it was, was not a married man. But when you thought he had a wife, wasn’t I liable to do anything? And didn’t I have it coming?”

This metafictional gambit is either annoying or genius, depending on your point of view. If the former, maybe you get angry and stop reading Amy Hempel. If the latter, maybe you go back and examine whether your assumptions about the narrator were tinged by her loose morals. But in both cases it accomplishes the author’s purpose, which is to reach past the veil of the narrative and force you into a relationship with the “you” from five minutes ago.

This interplay between the psyche and the body is a recurrent theme in Hempel’s stories. We are fragile beings trapped inside strange and wonderful bodies. And while the body might recover from trauma or injury relatively quickly, the mind keeps circling back to it. We are always adding footnotes to past experience, reshaping memories, tricked by our selves into making sense out of nonsense. “Nothing is a long time ago”, Hempel argues in her story “The Afterlife”.

And if our brains are tricksters, then love is a cruel kind of joke, an illusion which the author is slow to embrace. Hempel’s narrators are often voyeuristic third wheels, cracking one-liners from the sidelines as a relationship slides slowly off the rails. Or writing letters to someone who will never respond. Or recounting steamy stories to self-involved lovers who care only about the words, and not about the person doing the telling. Darkly funny stories about love losing itself, Hempel knows, are more revealing than the other kind, the make-believe stories we tell one another about true love.

“There is an almost unbridgeable gulf between what an artist sees and what an artist paints,” Hempel writes in “Offertory”. We graft our experience onto reality, and in so doing make fiction out of life. Art is an extreme example of this phenomenon. But it’s happening all the time, and once you’re aware of it, watching the process at work can be either horrifying, or gratifying, or both. Much like these stories.

“Offertory” is the final story in this collection, written more recently than the others. In it, Hempel comes to terms with the idea that affection – and our experience – is a metafictional construct. The narrator here is in a somewhat sad relationship with a man – an artist – who can only get excited when she talks about the threesome she had with a married couple, years ago:

“I admit to ineluctable jealousy – comparisons, comparisons, real and imagined. And, as it happens, there exists in me – not pathologically, but all too humanly, I think – a species of delight arising from this knowledge. Darling,” he said, conspiring, “are these conflicting sentiments and the mystery they point to not at the core of our alliance?”

Hempel could almost be describing her relationship with the reader here. Doomed and distant accomplices, trying to discover something new about the world, and themselves. Can love be trusted? Is it “true”? Probably not, says the author. But sometimes proximity can approximate passion, and in the end Hempel seems to choose the comfort of a stranger over solitude:

You want the truth and you want the truth and when you get it you can’t take it and have to turn away. So is telling a person the truth a good or malignant act? Precision – that was easy. He had asked for it! There was more to tell; there would always be more to tell. If I chose to tell him.

In the meantime.

I was never more myself than when I was lying in this man’s arms.

We lay quietly, holding each other. Time was slown way down … I knew he was not entirely with me, and I had a shopworn thought: To be able to reverse the direction of time! But wouldn’t we have to go through the same things in reverse?

“Darling,” he said again.

So here we go, careening along in the only direction there is to go in, our bodies braced for transport – “Unimprovable,” he says.

Keep talking, Amy.

(This review was originally published at Zouch Magazine)

This review is one in a series for what I’m calling the The DIY MFA in Creative Writing.

Click here for the comprehensive listing of titles, and check back often for updates on other selections from the list.

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