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Ethel Rohan

Raised in Ireland, Ethel Rohan now lives San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Potomac Review, and Los Angeles Review among many others. Cut Through the Bone was Long Listed as a notable collection by the 2010 Story Prize.

Blurbs

“Rohan’s stories are, more than anything else, about loss . . . and about the odd, endearing, and desperate ways that people fill the void or ignore it.”

– LORI OSTLUND, AUTHOR OF THE BIGNESS OF THE WORLD

“These stories create a sense of loss in the reader, an ache, but thankfully they avoid dull cynicism. Instead, they bear witness to the difficulty of living for oneself while sacrificing for others."

– Victor LaValle, author of Big Machine

“In this unforgettable collection, Rohan reveals her mastery in finding the danger of ordinary objects, the way they come alive when her characters hold them in their hands.”

– Kevin Wilson, author of Tunneling to the Center of the Earth

"This is a marvelous collection, filled with moments that startle and shatter."

– Laura van den Berg, author of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us

" . . . beautiful and inventive, tender and absurd, quirky and heartbreaking, dark and strange and devastating."

– Michael Kimball, author of Dear Everybody,

"Ethel Rohan’s women, despite their wounds, are strong of spirit."

– William Walsh, author of Pathologies

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Cut Through the Bone

For Those Just Tuning In

06/17/11

First off, I want to say I’m sorry for the very, very late post today. I was quite hung up in my day job and unable to sneak away with my computer to get some words down for all you lovelies. But, luckily, this post has the weekend for everyone to find it before my next post on Monday.

Today, I wanted to do something of a mid-month recap to bring everyone up to speed, and highlight some of the fantastic comments and discussion we’ve had in just the 2 short weeks since TLP’s launch and my featuring of Ethel Rohan’s Cut Through the Bone.

We started off the month as you’d expect with an introduction to The Lit Pub and an overview of CTTB, and some warm welcomes into the world from wonderful and generous commenters.

Cut Through the Bone is a collection of 30 short stories about loss, about absence and wanting, about quiet grief bubbling to the surface. In “How to Kill,” Ann feels the hollowness of an intentionally empty belly. “Gone” reads like a retelling of Robert Hass’s classic “A Story About the Body,” in which a woman reflects on the loss of her breasts to cancer, and bares herself to an artist attracted to a body she knows he does not understand.

But of course, Rohan’s expert storytelling doesn’t leave the reader with mere loss without the realization of what’s gained. Tracy’s humiliation in “On the Loose” gives way to finding it in herself to fight, to breathe, breath as an act of truly living. Similarly, in the titular story, massage therapist Joyce is asked to massage an amputee’s phantom limb, “her heart knocking against her ribcage, and [she] reminded herself to breathe.”

We moved on to “Reviewing a Review” that Amber Sparks wrote of CTTB at Vouched Online:

One of the aspects of Cut Through the Bone I love so much is how Rohan doesn’t provide her readers with some epiphany brought about from the loss in these stories, but allows us to find it for ourselves, or perhaps in ourselves. I’ve always been wary of stories that try to wrap these themes up so neat and tidy with some, “All of a sudden, s/he realized,” sort of moment, because anyone who’s dealt with loss, whether the loss of a pet or the loss of a close friend/relative/loved one, knows it just doesn’t work like that.

Dealing with the grief of loss takes work, dammit, and that’s what Rohan lets us do: work. She doesn’t patronize or coddle us. She trusts us to have the strength and courage necessary to make our own bright discoveries.

To which Amber herself chimed in with this great comment:

There is no “correct” way to respond to a hole in your life, but avoidance of sad things seems to create its own kind of void–I feel very sorry for people who live in that void.

The next post was the one that got us all talking, where I make the case of why it’s important for me as a man to read books written by women, and I ask What Is a Man’s Literature? in response to a list of the 75 best books of all time, released by Esquire, that was particularly gender biased (to say the least). You guys added so incredibly much to that conversation, and I want to highlight some of the really fantastic comments there:

Victoria Barrett: Though I can’t find evidence of it with a quick search, more than one savvy reader has pointed out to me that the Esquire list is a couple of years old, reheated for that web post, and somehow this time everyone noticed and responded to it.

For me, this speaks to the important work of groups like Vida; we’re primed to pay attention to this now in a way that we weren’t two years ago. Though it doesn’t look like it, this is progress.

Dorothee Lang: Thanks for opening this interesting discussion. And good question: “Like would people have called it out and praised it and encouraged it for being so balanced if it had been?”

Seeing it from this angle, the whole thing makes me think of the big fuzz about the New Yorker story issue last year. The hook there wasn’t gender, but age: “Summer Fiction: 20 Under 40″. The result was similar: huge media coverage, discussions, an alternative list (by Dzanc), which led to even more discussionss, one of them titled: “The Lists We Love to Hate: First the New Yorker, Now Dzanc?”

A thing that went unnoticed about the NY list: it was gender-balanced.

Ethel Rohan: What also saddens me about this growing gender ‘much ado’ is the suggestion that we should just be glad and grateful a magazine of Esquire’s reputation and reach published ANY recommended reading list.

Maybe I’m naive too, Chris, but this ‘at least’ attitude seems flawed and defeatist. It’s not enough to publish ANY recommended reading list and it’s especially grievous to publish a recommended reading list that’s ignorant, negligible, and damning.

Tim Jones-Yelvington: It seems important to me not to isolate Esquire’s list from its context alongside the rest of the magazine’s output, which is also lit — or at least language and cultural/media production, and which regularly plays a role in constructing an answer to this question that is posed of “What are men?” or “What is masculinity?” in some gross, reactionary and violent ways. One way of saying this is, “What exactly did we expect from Esquire?” But probably a better way of saying it is, “Esquire, come the fuck on already.”

Kyle Winkler: Being a man, and reading manly literature is a false dichotomy, b/c, what’s womanly literature? Also, what’s the relationship between your gender and your devotion or allegiance to that gender. Answer: none. Hate it, love it. Your choice. What is there to choose from really? I’ve read Shirley Jackson and had my ass handed back to me on a pike. My masculinity has been severely tweezed, judiciously slit-up, and decidedly analyzed thoroughly, and better in some instances, by women more than men.

Lidia Yuknavitch: as for books like mine, uber unapologetic in terms of being written by a woman through a woman’s body for ANY humans who have bodies and lives, or books of any sort written by women, the call is what it has always been.

stand up.

do not apologize.

do not say things like “it doesn’t matter if i’m a woman writer.”

until it doesn’t matter, it does.

i don’t desire a neutered society or literature. i desire a fully present — intellectually, corporeally, spiritually, ethically — society and literature. that means all the bodies. all the literatures.

Honestly, there are so many fantastic comments on that post, I could spend another 1500 words quoting them, so I just urge you to go read that post and the resulting conversation, as it’s a microcosm of what is possibly one of the most important conversations going on in literature and publishing today.

From there, I focused on a specific story, “How To Kill,” rehashed some of the previous “importance of man reading woman’s literature” conversation, and related my own story of dealing with a miscarriage. I thought I’d share some great insights from that post, too:

Erika: It is interesting how the mirror that allows us the most insight can oftentimes be the most different. I agree with your comment regarding observation. When someone writes about observing someone or something we can relate to, we are able to see ourselves in a different manner. Sometimes it takes a different path to get to a conclusion we were already aware of. But it’s the travelling of that path that makes such a change.

DK: Also of note: a similar discussion about gender is being had in sci-fi/fantasy circles, where women are becoming a greater portion of the audience, often to the consternation of critics and, unfortunately, some sci-fi/fantasy authors. Interestingly, an even greater number of critics still think that genre fiction is, to quote a NYT reviewer, “boy-fiction,” so clearly they haven’t been paying attention to the changing demographics. Either way, SF/F is one area where more “female” narratives are being demanded by the readership, which provides an interesting contrast to big-L Literature’s numerous gender issues.

Again, another post that opened up some really fantastic and important conversation, and if you have time, I’d encourage you to give it a read through, and as always, feel free to post your own thoughts.

Next, Laura Adamczyk wrote a great guest post regarding Ethel’s use of metaphor throughout CTTB, and related it to a painting by Modigliani.

Mostly, though, it’s the woman’s eyes that get me—eyes not unlike those in other Modigliani paintings, but wider—as deep and dark as two caves, so black they look dead. Or they make the woman look like she herself is dead. This is what haunts me about this painting. I can’t decide if she is metaphorically dead (emotionally dead, dying, stricken, etc.) or actually dead. A ghost.

I feel this is the painting Ethel Rohan would paint if she could. This dark image of this woman. It’s not just that, like the lines in the painting, Rohan’s writing is clean—though it is most certainly that. There is nothing unneeded in her prose, no word that is not doing something, if not two or three somethings. Tight. But it is more that the metaphor in this painting—showing a woman as actually dead to indicate an emotional/metaphorical death—is one that Rohan herself would use.

I started the next week with another story focus, this time on “The Big Top,” and focused primarily on lying, both as a part of the narrative of your life, and the narrative of a work of fiction, and discussed how I respond to reading on a more personal rather than critical or academic level:

Asking “What does it mean?” is a much different question than “What does it mean to me?” If I was still at BSU responding to this story for my comp class, I would write about the longing of wanting a child and not having one. I would write about the themes apparent, what the color blue means searching for why Ethel chose that color for the monkey, possibly about the crisp sparse language.

But that’s not what it means to me. To me, it means lying, it means finding a void to explain a feeling in my life and creating a simple silly fiction to explain it. It means telling that fiction over and over throughout my life until it becomes a part of my story.

And finally, this past Wednesday, I talk about senility and my fear of forgetting in response to Rohan’s story, “More Than Gone.” I had just given blood, so the last half of my post got a little loopy and disjointed, but again, the TLP community contributed some beautiful anecdotes and discussion of their own:

YDDE: Memory’s such a strange thing, especially because it’s almost completely creatively reconstructed and forever transient, affected by our moods, our current life situation and global outlook. Everything we tell ourselves about ourselves is just a constantly rewritten narrative where the narrator is constantly changing but unaware of the fact. It boggles my mind often, even the fact that this body is the same body I was born in. These hands have always been my hands and this heart has always been my heart.

Ashley C. Ford: I met my father in prison when I was 12 years-old. We’d been writing one another letters since I learned to write. When I didn’t have anything to say, he’d tell me to make up stories for him. Any story. So I did. A lot. When I met him, I worried he’d be disappointed that I didn’t look or act like any of the characters I wrote to him about. They were all so pretty, and brave, and had beautiful hand-writing like his. Some were even artists like him. I didn’t think of myself possessing any of those characteristics and I hoped he knew these stories were just hopes, dreams, not real. But he just held me for so long and kept whispering, “I love you, I love you, I love you”. And then I felt beautiful. All over. It was the first time I HEARD my father say that he loved me, and it made everything right in the world for a long time.

Nettie: My Mam had alzheimers/dementia. My Father is now in the throes of dementia and says he has no children – he has 9 – only lots of brothers and sisters. One day I gave my Mam a cup of tea and a biscuit from a pack half eaten by her. She looked at the biscuit and said Oh she had never tried these before and exclaimed how delicious they were. Long story short wouldn’t it be nice to experience such little pleasures over and over again. My Mam is gone 3 years now and my Father is still looking for her, expecting her to return from work at any moment. I think we obsess too much about forgetting or not remembering – my Dad is happy in his little world he does not remember the pain and grief of my Mam’s passing. Its our loved ones who will suffer when our memories are all gone – we wont remember that we have forgotten.

This post goes to show we’ve covered a lot of ground in just a couple short weeks! I wanted to thank everyone so far who has contributed to some incredible discussions about literature, life, art, and so many other topics that have sprouted from these posts here.

If you’re just joining us, I hope you’ll continue to keep up with what’s happening here, and feel free to toss your own life and thoughts into the fray! If you are curious about the book that’s spawning all this conversation, you can snag a copy!

Thanks to everyone who has made these past 2 weeks amazing here at TLP!

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13 Comments

  1. Ethel Rohan said on 06/18/11 at 9:11 am Reply

    Whoosh, Christopher, this is a fine testament to the great work you’ve done here throughout June, as are the discussion threads that follow your posts. An excellent round-up and highlight and I remain deeply grateful and humbled by your great effort and by the support and interest so many have shown in me and my book.

    Thank you.

    Reply

    Chris Newgent said on 06/18/11 at 10:20 am

    Thanks, Ethel!

    Getting this post together was crazy. It kept growing and growing, no matter how much cutting I thought I was doing, and I still feel like I had to leave so many wonderful thoughts and comments on the cutting room floor.

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/18/11 at 2:24 pm

    Ethel, not to mention a testament to all the work you’ve done to help get the word out. We couldn’t have asked for a more involved author. You are a gemstone.

  2. Kenny said on 06/18/11 at 9:42 am Reply

    Great roundup, Chris. I’ve really enjoyed following the discussions here, and you have all put in a great deal of work. I’m looking forward to the future of this site, seems a really positive thing tome. Thanks.

    Reply

    Chris Newgent said on 06/18/11 at 10:22 am

    Thanks, Kenny! Really glad to have you as part of the TLP community!

  3. Susan Rukeyser said on 06/18/11 at 12:29 pm Reply

    I’m so happy this site exists. Devoting this much time and attention to featured books provides an opportunity to delve deep. It’s tremendously supportive, and will help direct readers to great books they might otherwise miss. These discussions are just the sort I’ve felt a bit deprived of in my current suburban outpost. Many thanks!

    Reply

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/18/11 at 2:21 pm

    Dear Susan, it’s rewarding to see comments like yours here. Thank you for your support! (And from one suburban outpost to another, welcome!)

    Chris Newgent said on 06/20/11 at 6:43 am

    Thanks, Susan. I know the feeling. For the first 3-4 years out of college, I had no real support system for my love of reading and writing. After awhile, I just started getting bored. I don’t think it was that I was bored of reading or writing so much as I had become bored of myself; what’s the purpose to reading/writing if not to share your experiences with it? It wasn’t until I found this really vibrant, supportive community of readers and writers online that my love and passion for words returned, and with a force like I’d never known, even in college surrounded by fellow students and professors. I’m glad you feel you’ve found something similar to that here.

  4. Ashley C. Ford said on 06/18/11 at 2:19 pm Reply

    I’ve been emphatic in my new found love of The Lit Pub and will continue to let everyone know how special this place truly is. You know I’m terrible at not telling people what I love.

    Reply

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/18/11 at 2:22 pm

    Hi Ashley, we’re so lucky to have you as one of our supporters. You are a force! Thank you (x a million)!

    Chris Newgent said on 06/20/11 at 6:44 am

    Thanks, Ashley. You are as terrible as I am about keeping something you love from the general public. It’s one of my favorite things about you!

  5. Jordan Blum said on 06/18/11 at 6:53 pm Reply

    Great summary, Chris! This post has a great momentum as it recaps everything, and it really is a testament to how revealing respondents are, as well as how communal TLP feels. Rather than simply answer questions, people seem to want their fellow readers to know more about them, as if TLP is its own society and we’re all friends because we belong. It’s fantastic.

    Reply

    Chris Newgent said on 06/20/11 at 6:46 am

    Thanks, Jordan! I really do feel like we’re building something of a community here, which is exactly what we hoped and wanted to do. I’m everyday amazed by something shared by someone other than myself, Molly, or Mike. I love that the comments here are just as necessary to the whole of TLP as the posts themselves.

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