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Brian Oliu

Brian Oliu is originally from Readington, New Jersey and currently lives, writes, and teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Blurbs

Major ambitions for such a small book! Each brief meditation explores the daunting, existential task of searching (for you, whoever you are), and yet, with tender and earnest energy, retains a lover’s belief in the act of seeking.

– Lia Purpura, author of On Looking

Oliu’s book is playful, beautifully structured, filled with surprise and pleasure. Read it now, or you will miss out.

– Dinty W. Moore, author of Between Panic & Desire

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So You Know It's Me

Uncommon Ways of Seeing the World

07/07/11

I like giveaways. Anyone who comments on a Tiny Hardcore post during the month of July will be entered into a drawing to receive a lifetime subscription to Tiny Hardcore Press. That means you will receive a free copy of every book we publish as long as we are publishing books and there are some awesome, awesome books on the horizon. You want to get in on this.

I love interesting, intimate, and unexpected descriptions when I read because in the hands of a great writer, I see the world in different ways. Today, I want to talk about Brian’s uncommon ability to work with description throughout So You Know It’s Me. This book probably affected me most in how it showed me the world in different ways. The narrative that emerges from these essays takes place in a college town, Tuscaloosa, Alabama but the way this story is told and the kinds of descriptions Brian uses make you think that this story, this mystery, is taking place in a whole new world.

Brian’s finest descriptions come when he is speaking directly to the unnamed woman he is writing to about how he sees her. There is such tenderness and generosity of spirit and at times even eroticism in how he sees her and understands her, probably in ways she is unable to see or understand herself. The longing in those descriptions pulls at me terribly. That is not a bad thing.

When he sees her at the UA rec center, Brian writes:

It is because you believe in movement without movement. It is because you want to move your legs up and down like pistons — no, not pistons, as that would conjure up images of machinery and mechanism and you are neither of these things: you are human, toned. You are not of the machine: you are its operator. You are the one who makes the sloping roller ramps beneath the pedal links slide back and forth like marbles down a chute of a game I played as a child, when exercise was part of existing, throwing my body into leaves, chasing my neighbor around the backyard because that was the game that we played, because that is what was expected of us.

There is so much going on in that passage — the body as a machine, the elliptical machine as a childhood game, these descriptions evoking a memory that not only reveals how he sees her but how she makes him see himself, what she makes him unearth from within himself.

Then, at Barnes and Noble, the unnamed woman is sitting at a table in the café.

I would’ve come over to you, to the table near the window where you sat, but I would have no place to put my drink­ — it would’ve left a watery broken ring on the table, and I could not put you through that again: those nights where the boys with their parents’ bank cards bought you drinks they thought you liked because they were drinks you pretended to like­ — they were too red, too sweet, they curled your tongue like a thin paperback in a back pocket, though I would not describe your tongue this way: you know the story of Lennon and Chapman and Salinger and that is something I don’t want you to think about: about blood, about The Dakota, about autographs.

I love this passage for the tone, the cadence of it, the way it works at the language level with each word connecting to the next in an unexpected way. I’ve never thought of a curled tongue as a paperback book but when I read this passage, I find it to be a lovely, apt description. I can see the pink curl of flesh as clearly as I see the curved pages of a book in a back pocket. This book contains many such gorgeous images.

Later in the book, Brian sees his unnamed woman at an intersection:

My view of you was blurry­ — the type of blur evident when all is in motion: mothers moving in quickly to place kisses on the cheek, everyone quickly turning their heads when hearing the word ‘sister’, hearing a song, hearing a name that is similar to their name.

These essays originally appeared on Craiglist so the words, themselves, were fleeting, a blur. As I read this description, I thought about the glimpses we catch of people, the blurs of human bodies in motion. What Brian captures here is everything that can go through your mind when you see someone you long for from a distance. This passage put me there on the street corner, holding that same gaze. I love when writing makes me feel immersed in a scene.

In a parking garage, Brian thinks about how she once said his name:

You said my name once, before you knew it was my name. You knew the weight it carried, the touch of the tongue to the roof of your mouth briefly, pausing for a second before forcing the hot air out.

The physicality here and the perfect description of the tiny moments that go into the saying of a name are what captivated me. As a writer, Brian’s ability to see the world in such an intimate way has really helped me think about how I can break down anything from a breath to the speaking of a word to an affection shared by two people in more beautiful, unique ways.

Toward the end of the book, Brian thinks about cooking with his Missed Connections woman in his kitchen.

If I told you that they took handfuls of soil and cupped them in their hands like water and spread them out in empty gaps, would you think of the time we made dinner together, rolling the dough into circles, flattening everything yet being mindful of the spreading out, the melting together. Would you remember the cutting of the city into cubes, the streets into lines­ — would you remember spilling the oil, spilling the white of a cracked egg, watching it slide across the vinyl like a ghost, like our bodies if we danced while the yeast rose and the edges burned.

This is another passage where I thought about cadence and the unexpected transitions from one word to the next as well as the images those words evoked. There’s a scene at the end of the short film Logorama where the city is overtaken by oil and the black stuff starts flooding the street grid almost exactly the way Brian describes the spilling of oil and egg here. I was also drawn to the rising yeast and burned edges because these are such specific choices. To take the breaking of bread and make that into something so poetic, almost musical, is what makes the whole of So You Know It’s Me so entrancing.

* * *

What descriptive moments did you enjoy most in So You Know It’s Me? What are some of your favorite descriptions from other books? What is a good description for you? Talk to me. Let me know it’s you.

 

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38 Comments

  1. xtx said on 07/07/11 at 11:21 am Reply

    EVERYTHING you said is why I loved this book. Is why I’ve read it twice already and now, why I want to read it again. I have nothing else to add right now. Just wanted to say that.

    Reply

    Molly Gaudry said on 07/07/11 at 5:41 pm

    I feel like, if xTx and Roxane love this book, I will love this book. I want to love this book. I will read this book this weekend!

    Kathy Fish said on 07/08/11 at 6:17 pm

    Oh I’d love to win this subscription. Tiny Hardcore makes amazing books. And I’ve read Brian’s and yes, yes, the language, descriptions, the “eye” at work here is so deliciously fresh. I taught flash fiction for a couple of summers, to young writers, and my thing about descriptions was, don’t give us what we automatically see. Right? Choose the kinds of details that are striking and unexpected. Brian does this over and over again in this tiny remarkable book.

    Roxane said on 07/10/11 at 8:13 pm

    Molly you will love this book. xTx, thank you! Kathy, I so agree about the eye at work. Indeed, Brian does not give us the details we would normally see and thats why I love this book so much.

  2. Jordan Blum said on 07/07/11 at 12:53 pm Reply

    Excellent analysis and explanation, THP. I especially love that following bit:

    “You are the one who makes the sloping roller ramps beneath the pedal links slide back and forth like marbles down a chute of a game I played as a child…”

    Just the way he transitions from the present to the past, linking it together. It’s very smooth yet profound, and it makes me consider how everything links back to our childhood. The people, entertainment, activities, etc, we love/hate all tie back to childhood. I may want to date Jane Doe because she reminds me of a girl I knew in 4th grade; I may want to listen to Prefab Sprout because I heard it when I was 3 years old in the basement. Brian captures this crucial aspect of being human in a simple sentence. Bravo.

    Outside of that bit, I love the following line from Chapter 27:

    “…that I fell in love with a girl with hair longer than the Bible.”

    To me, that speaks volumes. It is the juxtaposition between two intangibles – love and faith. Everything Brian THOUGHT he needed lied in the Bible, but he suddenly realizes that everything he KNOWS he needs lies in this girls hair. It speaks the way simple things can mean so much more to us. I mean, a book is a book, and hair is hair, but they’re not if there is love for either (or both). It’s fascinating but oh so true. Again, bravo Brian.

    For me, a good description is one that’s simple, subtle, and substantial. It’s not cliched or obvious (“she cried like rain”), but rather revealing and ultra-specific. It takes you by surprise and is phrased unexpectedly and with connections that you never thought of yet they make a lot of sense.

    Reply

    Roxane said on 07/10/11 at 8:14 pm

    Jordan, that’s a fantastic line. I love how nearly every line in this book is that unique. “Subtle and substantial,” is such a perfect way to talk about good descriptions. So glad you enjoyed this book.

  3. Molly Gaudry said on 07/07/11 at 5:29 pm Reply

    These are such difficult questions to answer. I haven’t read Brian’s book yet (although I have read xTx’s!), and I’ll be doing my best to get caught up, so I can come back later and answer this question down the line. I’d love to share my favorite passages from Brian’s writing.

    I have so many favorite descriptions/descriptive passages from other books — I shared a few of them on Facebook today. I tried to think about why those passages stuck out to me, why I carry them around in my head and heart, and I can’t come up with an answer. They just “do something” to me, though. I respond to them almost in a magical way, something completely impossible to explain. Either passages work for me, or they don’t. And it’s difficult to think of reasons other than “I just like it. It speaks to me.”

    I will try harder. I will come back to this.

    I wonder — is anyone else having a similarly difficult time with these questions? If not, help me figure out why I’m being such a moron today, and why my brain isn’t working. If you are, though, let’s figure this out. . . .

    What makes description work? If you had to teach it, tomorrow, to a class full of little kids, what would you tell them?

    Reply

    Jordan Blum said on 07/07/11 at 5:51 pm

    I would tell the kids to make their description specific enough to visualize fully, and make sure every detail has a reason to be there.

    Molly Gaudry said on 07/07/11 at 6:07 pm

    Oh! I remember when I taught creative writing to high school students . . . I used to tell them that a detail should always try to cover 2 or 3 bases at once. If the character’s dress needs to be described, then it must serve the duty of also illuminating something about who she is — perhaps it was her mother’s, perhaps she got it on a double-markdown, perhaps it’s got a dropped hem she’s been meaning to fix.

    On another note, I just thought of something else: I love highly lyric descriptions, when language just sort of picks up and soars. When passages do that in books, I’m sold. Toni Morrison’s Beloved comes to mind. Jeannette Winterson’s Written On the Body comes to mind, too.

    yrfriendliz said on 07/07/11 at 6:14 pm

    Well, honestly, I am at work so I don’t have my books around to pick a passage, and I dont have things memorized because my memory is very small and I devote what little of it there is to learning Robyn’s dance moves. BUT I can tell you that I love JD Salinger’s descriptions in all of the stories in Nine Stories. I also love how he describes Zooey in Franny and Zooey. They are VERY short and just clever and perfect. Lorrie Moore is also very good at this. And Dorothy Parker.

    Molly Gaudry said on 07/07/11 at 6:25 pm

    Liz, when you wrote that, I remembered Salinger’s description in The Catcher in the Rye — the one about the short story Holden’s older brother, DB, wrote before he sold out to Hollywood. The story was about a little boy and a goldfish? In any case, that description of DB, and the story, and Holden’s perspective on it, all came flooding back.

    Oh man, and old Maurice’s bumpy chest. And Ackley kid.

    Erin said on 07/08/11 at 12:51 am

    I keep thinking about how the chicken sandwich in “Just Before the War with the Eskimos” is almost a character itself, just because it’s so well placed.

    Molly Gaudry said on 07/08/11 at 1:04 am

    Erin, yes, that chicken sandwich. As soon as you said that it came back to me immediately! And the tennis racquet?

    And also “See More Fish” and how the mother calls Sybil “Pussy” in “Banafish.” And how Seymour tweaks her toes in the water. Man. Salinger.

    Kristina said on 07/08/11 at 5:09 pm

    Molly, that’s such a great lesson for high school students. I remember in high school I was so in love with language that I would just go on and on without any purpose or direction to my descriptive passages.

    Sometimes I think it would be OK to be a high school writing teacher and then I remember high school. Hells. No.

  4. Sara H said on 07/08/11 at 12:42 am Reply

    This book sounds really great, and in general, I like the idea of tiny books that can pop into a bag.

    For me, the best description is one that feels so true, so familiar, and so clear, yet I’m still somewhat in awe of how the writer pulled the words out of the ether to say it in a way no one else could. I love it when I want to hug a book’s face off.

    Reply

    Molly Gaudry said on 07/08/11 at 1:05 am

    Sarah, I also love it “when I want to hug a book’s face off”! And tiny books that can pop into a bag are awesome, definitely! Roxane’s Tiny Hardcore titles are no exception. 🙂

    Roxane said on 07/10/11 at 8:15 pm

    Sara, I loved this book so much I wanted to hug its face off and it’s skin off and maybe even it’s bones off. Truth and familiarity work so well in good descriptions, especially when they are both of those things and unique too.

  5. DK said on 07/08/11 at 12:24 pm Reply

    I’ve always been partial to this bit from N.K. Jemisin’s “The Effluent Engine,” if only because the last line reminds me of the “Beat It” video:

    “This was the dance of things, the cric-crac as the storytellers said in Jessaline’s land. Everyone needed something from someone. Glorious France needed money, to recover from the unlamented Napoleon’s endless wars. Upstart Haiti had money from the sweet gold of its sugarcane fields, but needed guns — for all the world, it seemed, wanted the newborn country strangled in its crib. The United States had guns but craved sugar, as its fortunes were dependent upon the acquisition thereof. It alone was willing to treat with Haiti, though Haiti was the stuff of American nightmare: a nation of black slaves who had killed off their white masters. Yet Haitian sugar was no less sweet for its coating of blood, and so everyone got what they wanted, trading ’round and ’round, a graceful waltz — only occasionally devolving into a knife-fight.”

    Reply

    Roxane said on 07/10/11 at 8:16 pm

    Wow, DK, that’s glorious. I have Jemisin’s debut novel which is on my to-read list but I haven’t read Effluent Engine. This passage makes me want to. I will have to find it out.

  6. Emily Lackey said on 07/08/11 at 3:06 pm Reply

    In my class on 19th Century Aesthetics and Virginia Woolf, we were each asked to pick a passage from Mrs. Dalloway that we found to be “beautiful.” There was no other explanation other than that.

    The next day, we all came in with our passages written down and we went around the room and read them. What was remarkable was not what we chose (we had all read the book, we recognized all of the passages), but the fact that we all had vastly different ideas of what made writing “beautiful.” Some people chose passages where the description was particiularly musical, others chose passages where what was being described was in itself beautiful, and others chose passages that spoke to some greater truth and were, therefore, beautiful.

    Personally, I’m moved by the last one in this category, but it’s interesting to think that what makes a passage memorable to the reader is as subjective as beauty itself.

    Reply

    Roxane said on 07/10/11 at 8:21 pm

    One of the things I’m enjoying about publishing books is seeing how each writer brings a different kind of beauty in the world.

  7. Emily Lackey said on 07/08/11 at 3:08 pm Reply

    Oh, and I don’t have any books to quote from here, but just about any sentence from every Nabokov book/story is description I love.

    Reply

    Kristina said on 07/08/11 at 5:11 pm

    Yes. I could write out all of Pale Fire in this post.

    Emily Lackey said on 07/08/11 at 8:18 pm

    YES!

  8. Ryan Ridge said on 07/08/11 at 4:11 pm Reply

    I don’t have much to say other than this book is awesome! I read it on a flight from Kentucky to California, but by the time I’d finished it we were only over Arkansas so I read it two more times.

    The basic motivation for this comment is to praise Mr. Oliu for being a badass on the page and to say: read this book if you haven’t.

    Reply

    Roxane said on 07/10/11 at 8:21 pm

    Thank you for reading, Ryan, and I am so glad you enjoyed SYKIM.

  9. Melanie Jennings said on 07/08/11 at 6:23 pm Reply

    Sign me up! I LOVED this book: exquisite use of language plus compelling, poetic, and surprising sentences = awesome.

    Reply

  10. Don said on 07/08/11 at 7:29 pm Reply

    I loved xTx’s book from Tiny Hardcore, so I need to get this one too.

    Reply

    TLP Community Bookstore said on 07/08/11 at 7:31 pm

    Don, The Lit Pub has a bookstore!

  11. Angie Spoto said on 07/09/11 at 10:22 am Reply

    The descriptions from Brian’s book evoke the same feeling I get when I read Pablo Neruda’s poem “Ode to Enchanted Light.” The line, “The world is/a glass overflowing/with water.” runs through my head the whole day after I read the poem; it’s beautiful in description and so applicable to life. I got this same feeling reading the passages from Brian’s work in this post. Those images stick with you!

    Reply

    Roxane said on 07/10/11 at 8:22 pm

    Indeed, they do.

  12. Cook said on 07/09/11 at 2:26 pm Reply

    “…and that is something I don’t want you to think about: about blood, about The Dakota, about autographs.”

    This is the sort of thing I love. Boiling down the essence of what he doesn’t want to think about into what appears to be random string of nouns, but the specificity of the chosen items unpacks into a very specific shape that describes more accurately than a paragraph could do.

    I love this line from Heart of Darkness. It’s the “curved and imperceptible” that gets me, I think.

    “And at last, in its curved and imperceptible fall, the sun sank low, and from glowing white changed to a dull red without rays and without heat…”

    Reply

    Roxane said on 07/10/11 at 8:23 pm

    That is a fine line from Heart of Darkness. The language is so elegant there.

  13. brian warfield said on 07/09/11 at 4:43 pm Reply

    today, a wave of apathy threatened to overwhelm me. i felt tired re: writing, feeling lost in a strange world. but coming here and being reminded that people are still writing vital, vibrant things is enough to buoy my spirits.

    Reply

    Molly Gaudry said on 07/09/11 at 4:46 pm

    Brian, I swear to you I was just sitting here today awash in my own worries and regrets, and your comment just re-inspired me. Thank you for this.

    Roxane said on 07/10/11 at 8:23 pm

    Indeed they are, Brian. Every time I think I’m going to lose faith, I remember how vibrant the world of writing is and will always be.

  14. Brian Oliu said on 07/11/11 at 2:21 pm Reply

    Thank you, everyone, for your incredibly kind words–it really does mean the world to me. I’m glad that you all enjoyed the book. I’m incredibly humbled by all of this. I like to think that the book gives good hugs! If it doesn’t–find me at AWP or wherever and I will give you a legit good hug.

    Reply

  15. Brian Warfield said on 09/23/11 at 11:27 pm Reply

    Has the winner of the giveaway been decided yet? Is that still happening? Because I really, really want these books. I already bought So You Know It’s Me. It was amazing.

    Reply

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