Occasional Literary Magazine Reviews: The Normal School

Title: The Normal School

Fall 2012, Issue #9

Theme: Film and Music Spectacular

Featured Names on the Cover: Phillip Lopate, Joe Bonomo, Ned Stuckey-French, Roxane Gay, Daniel Chacón

What: The mag from the California State University, Fresno. Newspaper print in a magazine format with a nice $5.00 price tag. Definitely worth the price of admission. I’ll read this mag again.

Format: The newsprint smell of this is refreshing. Every time I opened it, I was thinking “pulpy dead trees, let’s hard boil this mag.” I said that several times.

Props to the Table of Contents. Each piece gets a bullet-point summary so you know more than just the title. Very eye-catching and amusing, and it worked. Some of these pieces I wouldn’t have checked out without it.

Other than the TOC, the mag needs more pop for its style. Let’s get some art to help the flow.

Why (or Why Not To) Read It: The stories begin with film and music, then gradually fade from that theme. But the first piece that I loved was “What (500) Days of Summer Means to Me” by Pablo Pinero Stillmann. An avowed “film snob,” Stillmann subjects himself to watching 500 Days of Summer after catching it quickly on cable. He breaks down narcissism beyond “manic pixie dream girl” stepping stones and lays into pop culture pastiche with lines like “Imagine if one day two people meet, say, at the bus, bond over 500 Days of Summer and fall in love. The world would slip into another dimension.” He hits at what makes this such an annoying, yet ultimately pleasing(?) movie.

The Phillip Lopate piece seemed like an overwrought undergrad thesis. Too close to form, or more of an academic essay (complete with an easy-to-find thesis statement). It sticks out for the wrong reasons. Also skipped essays by Joe Bonomo and Joshua Harmon.

The Debra Marquart piece “After The Fire” is a trustworthy nonfiction piece cloaked in a fictional voice. Her band’s Ryder truck caught on fire once, destroying their equipment and is an “every band”-type piece told with a been there/done that voice, but lacks condescension.

Didn’t understand the Patrick Madden piece on rare Scott Russell Sanders postcards. Maybe I was just too lazy to do more research.

I’m now realizing how many great pieces there are in here (go for the Margot Singer and Jennifer Itell as well.)

The best fiction was Matthew Vollmer’s “Advanced Placement Question 3, Free Response.” A cafe bookstore worker becomes infatuated with an older customer, agrees to tutor her son, and then does some embarrassing things. Vollmer’s tone is sincerely innocent and explanatory, and he hews to the essay-prompt format surprisingly well which adds doses of humor to it. Great piece.

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