Tag Archives: writing

Funny Once

Like reading about bored, terminally unhappy people sometimes behaving badly? Then check out my latest book review for High Country News — the exceptional Antonya Nelson’s fifth collection of stories, Funny Once.

Seriously, you’re not going to feel uplifted, or probably have too much sympathy for many of the characters, but the woman sure knows how to write both modern western ennui, and some damn beautiful sentences.


In Funny Once, her distinctive fifth collection of short stories, Antonya Nelson shares a bleak and lonely view of today’s suburban West, populated by characters who face a sort of “terminal unhappiness.” From Houston to Wichita, Albuquerque to Telluride, we encounter desperately bored people behaving badly. They cheat and are cheated on, they self-medicate, they lie at their AA meetings and then slip around the corner for a beer, they stare through windows contemplating the emptiness of their middle-aged lives with a devastating yet oddly refreshing clarity.

In one story, three adult children finally haul their obstinate father to a nursing home, literally duct-taping the old man to his easy chair and loading him into the back of a pickup. “Could anyone ever predict this was where we’d end up?” they ask themselves. In another story, Phoebe, a dedicated pessimist, is galled by her husband’s idealism, the way he fails to see how “life was so little like a science experiment and so much like a cluttered drawer where you tossed things just to get them out of sight.”

The danger of depicting so many miserable, reckless misanthropes in a single book is that some of the characters start to blend together, seeming interchangeable in their lifestyles and attitudes. Nelson writes with a graceful, powerful ease, though, and while her stories brim with the experience of boredom, they are certainly never boring in themselves.

In “Literally,” one of the book’s most memorable stories, a widower struggles to protect both his own young son and the son of his loyal Latina housekeeper from the harshness of life. Of course, trouble ensues — the boys disappear on a secret mission one afternoon, restraining orders are broken, a precious phone containing all his late wife’s last messages is lost. In the end, safely back home, young Danny sums up not just his own experience, but the theme of Nelson’s entire collection perfectly in one line: “This has been a terrible day. … Even though nothing exactly bad happened.”

— By Kathleen Yale

Putting the Person in Personality

Do you like reading about your astrological sign? What about taking personality tests, dosha questionnaires, or the wealth of internet quizzes on what Hunger Games character, 80’s song, marine animal, or sandwich you’d be if you could, you know, live in the ocean or be ordered and eaten at a deli?

In my experience, people love learning about their personality — both in legit and ridiculous ways. I’m certainly no exception.

So it was especially fun to research and write these recent episodes of Crash Course Psychology focusing on personality — what it is, how do we measure it, what is the history of various theories, and are those ink blot tests for real, and if so, why do they predict almost everyone is a latent killer?

So if you have twenty minutes, and want a little extra education and trivia fodder (did you know Rorschach totally looked like Brad Pitt?), check out these lessons.



Not Fade Away

I’ve got a new book review out in the latest issue of High Country News.

Check it out if you like reading book reviews, and check out Quimby’s book, too, if you’re interested in issues in the changing West, grumpy old codgers, bored teens, accidental pyros, religious zealots, and wandering horses.



On Bearing Witness

Last week I spent a mad hour rummaging through desk, closet, and box, looking for a particular notebook. Understand, that I possess many tattered notebooks, and do not often recall their content based on their covers. 

Still, at last, after much rifling, a green patterned book in hand, I found what I was seeking. Notes. Minutes, really, from a series of meetings long ago. A thread to the past, that I needed to see.

Tomorrow will mark the first of Matt Power’s formal memorials. The snow in his native Vermont will keep melting, and loved ones will gather to honor his life. I hope the crocuses will show. And the daffodils. Too early for sunflowers though, the bright flower he once dressed as to protest the auctioning of New York community gardens. A sunflower perched in a tree, pulled down by police. That, was Matt. 

It has been several weeks since Matt  died. I have thought of him every day since I heard the terrible news of his passing. On a recent visit to the city, I saw glimpses of his face many times in the crowd. I haven’t known what to write. Or even if I’ve had the right.

I won’t pretend I knew Matt very well. I know he is gravely missed by hundreds, probably thousands of people across the globe–his friends and family, his acquaintances, his admirers, personal and professional. Many of them have written tender and eloquent remembrances. Roger Hodge, former editor of Harper’s and a good friend to Matt recently gave a particularly sad and beautiful interview  with Vermont Public Radio that you can listen to here.

Though we did not know each other well, Matt left a big impression on me. I think he left and big impression on everyone. It might have been his broad, impish grin, but really, I think it was his spirit. He was so genuinely interested in everyone, everything. He enthusiasm for life was infectious.

I first met Matt in the fall of 2009. I was working at Orion Magazine, and we hosted a weekend-long “young” writer’s conference at a big lodge in the Adirondacks. We invited Matt. That notebook I was so desperately seeking contained all my many notes from our group discussions on art and action, darkness and light, the future of nature, nature writing, and the world. 

I remember these discussions, their quality, their depth, and poetry. But perhaps more than that, I remember the down time. Sitting around the table at meals. Ten conversations at once. I know Matt was a fearless, compassionate writer. A free-spirit. When you read the tributes, they all mention his thoughtfulness, his curiosity, and his generosity with his time and advice. That was easy to see, even in a single weekend.

But how I will always picture Matt, is running around a ping-pong table. Is dancing to a Bruce Springsteen record, and shouting, with a room full of writers, the line I’m sick of sitting ’round here trying to write this book! I imagine him sprinting with us, through the dark, naked, into the frigid fall lake water. I picture him quoting Camus, and lines from “Asphodel”–probably, It is difficult/ to get the news from poems /yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there– though honestly, I cannot say for sure.

And too, I think of him speaking on the need to bear witness. Whether sitting with the poorest Sioux in Pine Ridge, rafting down the Mississippi with a bunch of anarchists, talking to drone-operator veterans, or rummaging with dump scavengers in the Philippines, Matt created a space to let people tell their own stories. Stories the rest of us need to hear.

The world needs so many more people like Matt. And the truth is, I wish I were more like him. He will was an inspiration, and will be missed by many– a testament in itself, to a life well-lived. We can honor him by reading his wonderful work, by continuing to bear witness to all the disenfranchised people to whom he gave such insight and voice. We can choose to not look away.

My thoughts are with his wife and family.

Credit: GQ Magazine