Magazine Review #3: Tin House #46, Winter Reading

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I’ve been craving winter. Real winter. Snow and ice and shoveling and bundling up to the point of being unable to bend over. We don’t get that here in San Francisco. The sun has been streaming into my window all afternoon, and I can’t quite grasp the fact that it’s almost January.

I’ve spent most of my life in climates that have four distinct seasons and there’s something comforting about the shifts in weather. Since I’m madly in love with this city (despite its lack of winter) I’ll have to settle for the winter issue of Tin House as my transition into the season.

Tin House has been doing Summer Reading issues for a while now, and for the past few years have been putting out a Winter Reading issue as well. I love this idea because literature and winter are made for each other. Last year’s Winter Reading included one of the best short stories I’ve ever read in my entire life. (“The Moors,” by Ben Marcus.) I’ve been thinking about that story ever since, and subsequently spent the entire year reading basically everything Marcus ever wrote.

Although there weren’t any Ben Marcus life-changers in this issue, it was exceptionally good. The content covers a lot of ground—poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and interviews—and the biggest surprise for me was the poetry. I don’t read a lot of poetry (strange, considering the amount of literary magazines I read) and I feel like a fraud every time I attempt to review poetry. Nevertheless, if you read nothing else in the issue, it would be worth reading just for the poems. The issue includes outstanding poetry by Adrienne Rich, Jay Nebel, Eileen Myles, A. Loudermilk, and Patrick Rosal.

Each of the poems in this issue revolves around a simple narrative, which bodies forth something much larger than what is contained on the page. The poem “The Order of Things,” by Nebel, is about killing spiders. It’s layered with meaning, and filled with imagery, and philosophical consideration (e.g. the line, “I wonder if God feels repulsed by the site of us”), but I hesitate to say that it’s about anything else. Yet somehow, it’s about everything else:

“I hate spiders
There. I’ve said it. I hate walking face and teeth
and nose into their webs
while they spin and wrap and suck the blood out of flies.
My mother brushes them into her palms
because she feels guilty
escorting them like admirals
to the sidewalk. I hate the idea of them
as much as I hated lectures
in college, except I could sleep
through the professor droning on about the homosexual
tendencies of the monkeys
the industrial revolution or Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.
Tonight I smashed one with a nineteenth-century Russian novel
for crawling on my desk.
I know. I’m upsetting the order of things.”
[…]

It’s a poet’s job to show us the world the way it really is, (not the world we want to live in, or should live in) in a way we’ve never seen. This is exactly what Nebel does, and it’s remarkable that he uses humor to do so.

The issue begins with a beautiful story by Kevin Brockmeier, a writer I’ve always admired for his ability to write literary fiction that utilizes elements of fantasy. This story, which is called “Ryan Shifrin,” follows the life of a reluctant missionary. Ryan’s sister, Judy—a deeply religious woman afflicted with cancer—dies early in the story. While Judy was ill, Ryan had taken her religious pamphlet-delivering route, not because he himself is a believer, but because she is. After she dies, he is pulled deeper into the church and eventually becomes a missionary.

The story is interesting in part because it covers so much time (We see Ryan age from 42 to 81.) and also because Brockmeier handles the issue of God in a way that is neither preachy nor pedantic, which many stories with religious themes can be.  And in fact the story becomes less about God and more about life and purpose as Ryan moves from city to city spreading the “Good News.” Brockmeier’s writing is striking and swift, and it’s a joy to spend so much time with such an extraordinary character.

The other story that really jumped out of this issue was “To Psychic Underworld:” by Dan Chaon. This imaginative short story revolves around Critter, a man who recently lost his wife, and is living with his sister while raising his toddler. Ever since his wife’s death, Critter has been finding inexplicable notes. The first random note he found after his wife’s funeral reads: TO PSYCHIC UNDERWOLRD: STOP ASTRAL TRAVELING TO MOLEST/DECIEVE OTHERS (ANIMALS TOO). ANIMALS ARE NOT MADE OF HATE. CEASE AND DESIST.

He continues to discover these strange notes, and the genius of this story lies in moment when we discover the last note Critter’s wife ever wrote. The idea of writing notes and sending them off into the world is compelling in and of itself, but it becomes even more complicated when there is someone on the receiving end of the note. The juxtaposition of notes with intended readers and those without is fascinating and Chaon elegantly captures so many tiny, powerful moments it’s surprising that the story comes in just under ten pages. Like the poetry, it contains within it so much more than what is in the actual sentences, and everything that is left out makes the story feel so full of wonder.

Tin House often conducts great interviews, and this issue includes an especially good one with Karen Russell. I may be biased because Russell is one of my favorite writers, but I also think her writing defines a certain kind of literary tradition—be it surreal, magical, or fantastical—that so few contemporary writers explore. Elissa Shappell, the editor-at-large at Tin House, says in the interview, “There is a school of thought that argues that surrealist fiction simply isn’t as serious or important as realist fiction.” This is a perception that I constantly encounter in the MFA world and something that worries me about the future of literature.

Karen Russell gives me hope: “You know that’s always troubled me, too, basically because in my reading life the folks I like best are funny, absurd, surreal, and deeply serious, if by “serious” we mean deeply engaged with the root mysteries of our existence. Sam Lipsyte or Joy Williams, for example, are frequently hilarious, but their humor surges up from the void, from the absurdity of being alive. Italo Calvino will write a story like “The Dinosaurs,” where a dino narrator tells jokes about its tail but also discusses “the anonymous molds of thought.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez can work a critique of the global status quo into a novel where it seems always to be raining butterflies.”

It gives me overwhelming joy to know that there are writers in the world like Karen Russell. Writers who aren’t afraid of the surreal. Hew new novel, Swamplandia!, is an expansion of a short story from St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. It will be interesting to see how the incredible characters from “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” evolve, and even more interesting to see how Russell evolves as a writer.

In his introduction to the issue, Tin House editor, Rob Spillman quotes Donald Barthelme, “The aim of literature…is the creation of a strange object covered with fur which breaks your heart.” Indeed, this issue of Winter Reading encompasses something strange, furry, and a little heartbreaking, which is exactly how winter should be.


Nancy Smith is a writer and graphic designer. Her work has been published in Paper, The Believer, Seattle Weekly, Resonance, and Communication Arts. She has an M.A. in Media Studies and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. She is currently working on a Ph.D in Communication and Culture at Indiana University. She blogs about books, design, and technology here: somequietfuture.com More from this author →