Tuesday, August 30, 2011


October is full of wonderful things. While that's true in general, it is true in particular of this October because I will be doing readings in two of my favorite places: Providence, where my book takes place; and Boston, city of my birth.

I will read at my alma mater, Providence College, on October 6th at 7pm. This event will be funded by several departments and the alumni association. It has been coordinated by poet Jane Lunin Perel, and I feel so welcomed by them, I might write another book about it.

Then, on October 7th at 9pm, I read at the Out of the Blue Art Gallery, for their Dire Literary Series, located at 106 Prospect Street in Cambridge, Mass. (Okay, so not Boston-Boston, but still Boston.

What I'm really excited about in October, though, is hosting Zachary Mason for our Pleiades Visiting Writers series here in Warrensburg, Missouri. Mason's book The Lost Books of the Odyssey is among the best books to come out in the last ten years, and it has been deservedly acclaimed by the NY Times and named a notable book. He'll be out here for a reading on October 13th. It will be epic-- a word that I don't use lightly, but in this case, since it concerns Odysseus...

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Predictable hypocrisies

Proselytizers of "inner peace" who, in person, demonstrate a fundamentally aggressive nature.
Psychologists who suffer from severe mental illness.
Gay-bashing politicians who turn out to be gay.
Too-permissive parents who raise stressed-out kids.
Advocates of a healthy lifestyle sneaking a cigarette.
Petty intellectuals.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Things that ought not to be surprising, but are:

Birthdays, and other occasional reminders of one's mortality.
Discovering a new interest or activity that doesn't fit who you think you are, like sailing or golf.
A breakfast joint with real maple syrup on all the tables.
The salesman who leans in and whispers, "You can get this stuff much cheaper elsewhere."
The film breaks in the middle of the movie, and the theater is dark and silent.
The lightning sounds like it is much, much closer than it is.

Monday, August 22, 2011

"Dilemmas" with surprisingly simple solutions

This morning I'm thinking of the famous Linda Pastan poem that begins, "In ethics class so many years ago / our teacher asked this question every fall: / if there were a fire in a museum / which would you save, a Rembrandt painting / or an old woman who hadn’t many / years left anyhow?" This is a common question in the study of ethics, in one form or another, although I never for a moment doubted my own conclusion. For me the answer is as simple as it is selfish. Save the old woman. Save the old woman every time. If I failed to save a classic painting that would give pleasure and artistic insight to generations of humanity, I could still live with myself, I could still sleep at night, I could still say to the old woman next to me outside of the museum, "Isn't that a beautiful bonfire?"

Sunday, August 21, 2011

On praise

I've begun to realize, as I start to encounter reviews of Memory Sickness, that I appreciate reader analysis much more than praise. Complimentary adjectives make for good newspaper copy ("Powerful..."; "Extraordinary..."), but they leave one wondering whether the reader has paid close enough attention. It is when I see a reader really wrestle with the content of a story that I feel most gratified. It is validating when, for example, one reviewer notices that "The Ballad of John Gray," the final story in the collection, "thematically and even plotwise manages to unite the disparate threads of this collection," or when another reviewer notices that the book is fundamentally about the "brittle connections" between people who live in the same city, who sometimes even inhabit the same homes.

If there is one thing that Facebook proves, it's that "liking" anything is cheap and easy. What a shamefully dull response to all the phenomena of the world! Thumbs up, high-five, affirmation, affirmation! One of my friends who is a hold-out from Facebook said that he would join us in the social networking scene when they introduce a "need" button.

Sarah wrote a paper over the summer that deals with the confusing nomenclature of contemporary fine art, specifically when it deals with beauty. "Beautiful" is a sort of insult in the fine arts, as it implies that what one is aspiring to is the merely ornamental, and that it strives for nothing but to pleasantly adorn the wall of a museum. As she points out, though, any serious artist always attends to the harmonies of form, color, and composition that exemplify beauty, even when the subject is meant to evoke an intellectual response (or a disturbing one).

I wouldn't go so far as to call it an insult, but I must admit that "beautiful" to me does fit into a category of thing that I will call "praise that is not really praise." Especially as I find myself writing more and more about things that are painful to contemplate, such as the Cambodian holocaust, to hear my work described as "beautiful" fills me with the anxiety of an artist who could be accused of beautifying the misery of others. I have to admit that I do not think of Memory Sickness as beautiful. I think of it as painful but necessary, the itch and tingle that comes from a healing wound. Strange pleasure from an unpredictable place, but welcome.

Praise that is not really praise:

(1) "I usually hate short stories... but I really liked your collection."
Translation: "I was so surprised to actually enjoy this book that you spent three years crafting, despite the fact that I have no love or respect for the art-form to which you've dedicated your whole creative life."

(2) "This character was so believable. Was it based upon a real person?"
Translation: "I don't believe you are capable of writing convincing characters unless you just wrote down what you saw and heard others do and say."

(3) "I really like how it isn't all plot-driven, that these are just glimpses into the everyday lives of these characters."
Translation: "I entirely missed how the internal conflict of the character manifested in an action within the story, but I convinced myself that I understood it anyway."

(4) "As I was reading, I kept thinking what a good writer you are!"
Translation: "I was not paying attention to the story, because I was continually distracted by my own unfamiliarity with literary fiction."

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Phong Blog idea.

So I've decided to keep self-promotion out of the blog. Somewhere on the right-hand column I will throw up a link to my book and website, but I don't want book-selling to be its raison d'etre. If I felt the burden of advertising my work every time I posted here, I would quickly lose interest.

Indulge me, then, and let us get the self-promotion over with now: buy MEMORY SICKNESS. I really like it, the reviewers have liked it, and if you enjoy literary fiction that explores complex emotional states, then I think you will too.

In the meantime I'd like to talk about peaches.

For my entire life, I always thought that a good peach was a random occurrence. The peach, in fact, has always served for me as a functional metaphor for the unpredictable. But our local farmer's market-- where I am headed after I finish this post-- has totally ruined the metaphor. Every peach is ambrosia. I won't describe it in detail, because there is nothing worse than reading about a blissful sensation that you will never have the chance to partake in (unless you visit Warrensburg, Missouri). But it was good to discover that I am still capable of surprise.

Unlike Proust's "petite madeleine" dipped in honeyed tea, this humble peach did not evoke the ineffable sensations and memories of things past; but rather, it throttled me forward into the promise of further discovery of the sensual world. It was a future-peach. So now I think I've buried the lede: at the Warrensburg farmer's market, you will find future-peaches.

Friday, August 19, 2011

This is a blog.

This is the blog that Phong wrote. Now that blogging is no longer new-fangled and fashionable, I am permitted as a luddite to take part in it.

As a short-story writer, I must confess that I am seduced by the brevity of the blog post as a genre. As a lover of language, I have to admit that the haste with which most blog posts are written is distressing to me.

What you will find on this blog:
Things that are not so private that they belong in a diary.
Things that are not so topical that they lose interest within hours.
Things that are mysterious.
Concise things that seem to distill compound-ideas into clear alcohol.
Raw materials, before I even realize that they will become the stuff of fiction.

What you will not find on this blog:
Things that stoke your self-righteous rage.
Things that are so complex that they must necessarily be treated too casually.
Things that are impossible to verbalize.
A nagging sense that, by virtue of holding the microphone, the speaker possesses a superior nature.
Advice on your health.

(Apologies to Sei Sh┼Źnagon)