Two Books from Making Literature 2017: Reflections by Hillary Jo Foreman

Jun 6, 2017 by

Hillary Jo Foreman is a senior English major with a creative writing minor; she served as Conference Intern for Making Literature 2017. Her reading interests span from Ibsen’s plays to Hanya Yanagihara‘s novels, and her writing interests are equally varied, though she is currently focused on flash fiction and poetry. In addition to writing and working at Starbucks, she is conducting research under the direction of Dr. Carie King to develop a youth writing program. She intends to pursue graduate study upon completion of her degree at Taylor.
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Come by Here: A Novella and Stories
Autumn House Prize in Fiction, 2013
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The Flavors of Come By Here by Tom Noyes

Sometimes when I read a book I play a game where I don’t look at the back cover until after I’ve finished the story. Like mystery-flavored Dum-Dum suckers, the characters, settings, and events wait to be unwrapped and discovered. They could be envy-inspiring, like blue raspberry, or something weird, like banana or cream soda. That’s the fun part; all I know is what the cover discloses. The front cover of Tom Noyes’s Come By Here, winner of the 2013 Autumn House Fiction Prize, revealed two things to me: that I was about to read a novella and some stories; and that a fish like the large, solemn one swimming across the cover, would likely make an appearance.

I met the fish, an Asian carp (solemn fish indeed), in the second story of the collection, “Bycatch.” The main character, who is fishing illegally, catches the deadly fish at the outset of the story. It’s a fish that will “eat and eat and eat everything else into oblivion, leaving nothing but skeleton lakes behind.” Despite the danger of her existence, however, the fisherman cannot bear to part with her; he sees himself having more in common with the undesired and destructive carp than with the people he works with, and he develops feelings for the fish in spite of the inevitable complications it causes in his relationships.

Kathleen George–author, professor, and judge of the 2013 Autumn House Fiction Contest–says, “These accomplished stories braid environmental issues with emotional conflicts in a collection so polished I can only marvel at it.” In “Curb Appeal” gender roles are challenged as a couple searches for a house near an old chemical dump. A delicate father-daughter relationship dissolves in the foreground while a Coke plant breathes poison over the town in “Per League Rules.” These and other personal conflicts like guilt, uncertainty, and mental illness combine with environmental instability to foster an eerie tone, an ambiguous depth, throughout the five stories and into the novella. Like the novella’s underground fire, inspired by the real fire still raging beneath Centralia, Pennsylvania, the bulk of the collection’s conflicts are, as a mine-owner in the novella says, “…under your feet instead of over your head.”

Colored by the enigmatic presence of the Prophet and the menacing underground fire, the novella’s several perspectives from 1969-1995 explore the death of a child, an affair, and an unwanted pregnancy, among other events. Items like a flask, a screw, and a gun reappear throughout the sections of the novella, contributing to a mysterious cohesion. The Prophet’s language is reminiscent of the Old Testament, giving an apocalyptic tone to the novella, aided by haunting ambiguity and religious imagery. The sins of the father visiting the children is a prevalent motif throughout the individual points of view and in the generational damage done by the fire.

The themes and images that run threadlike throughout the collection suggest that the book might be categorized as a “faith-inspired fiction,” defined by Ron Hansen in his essay “Faith and Fiction” as having a “fondness for humanity and find[ing] cause for celebration in the beauties of the natural world.” Come By Here exhibits both of these qualities without shying away from the darkness of human existence in a diseased world. None of Noyes’s stories are tied up neatly with salvation or happily ever after; instead, they finish with complicated layers of grace and anger, redemption and loss.

The questions swimming through my brain about the multi-faceted truths I encountered along the way inspired me, when I found myself at the back cover, to turn the book over and begin again, this time with excited expectation of the satisfying flavor within.

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Ariel
HarperTeen, 2005
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Reimagining Shakespeare in Ariel by Grace Tiffany

When my ninth grade English class studied Shakespeare’s The Tempest, our final project entailed choosing a scene or two and filming our performance of it to present to the class on the last day of school. A group of six of my friends and I gathered and divvied up roles for Act 3, Scenes 1 and 2. I played a drunken Stephano, dressed in distressed denim and a ruffly thrift store button-down shirt, craftily stained for authenticity.

It was our first encounter with Shakespeare, and many of us struggled to make sense of the 17th century language, so we used No Fear Shakespeare’s “modern translation” of the play online. Rather than “Thou liest, most ignorant monster. I am in case to justle a constable,” our Trinculo said, “You’re a liar, you ignorant monster. I’m courageous. I could shake up a police officer right now” (3.2.34-5). My classmates roared with laughter the day we viewed the homemade videos. Though we did not read directly from Shakespeare’s text, we gained an understanding of the play and enjoyed our study.

Reading Ariel, a reimagined telling of The Tempest by Grace Tiffany, was in some ways a similar experience. The book uses elements of the original play, but reshapes many of the characters, gives fresh backstory, and views the world through Ariel’s purple eyes.

I did not know what to expect from the Shakespeare-inspired novel, and I was pleasantly surprised by its depth of exploration. Issues of race and the dangers of trusting appearances come to play in the conflict, as well as a number of religious allusions. For instance, there is a parallel to Genesis in a tree containing forbidden knowledge, and a reference at the end of the novel to the prodigal son.

Ariel also makes connections beyond the Bible. After taking Romantic Literature this past fall semester, I could not help comparing Tiffany’s spirit, at once beautiful and dangerous, with John Keats’s Lamia. Both spirits are not human, thus unable to fully connect with reality as we know it. Harshness of grief and practicalities of life drive Lamia and Ariel away from their human companions. They are both capable of experiencing pleasure and delight, but neither know the depth of love or empathy. The Norton Anthology’s introduction to “Lamia” describes the spirit as “not entirely blameless or blameworthy.” The same goes for Ariel. Although she is, as the back cover describes, a “sinister Ariel,” the reader is compelled to empathize with her, longing to hear more of her magical stories.

The Tempest remains one of my favorite Shakespeare plays–first  sweetened by the memory of my ninth grade video project; then deepened by my study of the original text; and now expanded upon with a new perspective in Grace Tiffany’s novel.
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