Summer of ClassicsI still haven't made up my mind about this year's Summer of Classics, but right now I'm thinking about going totally old-school: The Poetic Edda, Homer's Odyssey and Dante's The Divine Comedy (or if not the whole thing, then at least Inferno). If that's the route I take, wish me even more luck than usual.
Postage stamp story
This is so cool: an official Ireland postage stamp, with a 224-word story written by 17-year-old Eoin Moore. (Click on the above for a full-size image.) Although, strangely enough, his name doesn't appear on the stamp.
"...every last one of them some kind of villain..."I love this brief passage from Knut Hamsun's short story "Zachaeus" (collected in Tales of Love & Loss, translated by Robert Ferguson), which describes the workers on a wheat farm in the Great Plains during the late 1800s.
There are all nations, all races, young and old, immigrants from Europe and native-born American wanderers, every last one of them some kind of villain living out his derailed existence.That strikes me as kind of a twist on "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free", but instead of Emma Lazarus' poor, innocent victims, Hamsun's immigrants are scoundrels escaping their dark pasts. The story is one of the several in the collection inspired by Hamsun's brief time in America, as a young adult and before he established himself as a writer. I wish he had written more fiction like this that showed the struggles of Norwegian emigrants, along the lines of O.E. Rolvaag. But he abandoned short fiction early on, and focused entirely on novels for the rest of his career, setting most if not all of them in Europe. The collection is particularly interesting in how much the stories echo his classic early novels Hunger, Pan and Mysteries.
(Photo by Erik Kwakkel)
I had no idea such places still existed: chained libraries, virtually unchanged since the Middle Ages, in which all the volumes were chained to lecterns or shelves, which provided access to the public while protecting the volumes from theft. The image above is from the chained library in Zutphen, Netherlands, one of only three left (in their original state) in Europe. More on the libraries here. So beautiful.
I just started reading ________, because:
Knut Hamsun, Tales of Love & Loss: Hamsun is one of my favorite novelists, but I've never read any of his short stories, which he only wrote very early in his career. (5/10/13)
Patrick Michael Finn, From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet: Despite its rich history, Joliet is almost totally unrepresented in fiction. This Joliet-based story collection might change that. (5/3/13)
Various Writers, Hair Lit Vol. One: With so many writer friends contributing here, it would have been impossible not to read this. (4/26/13)
Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping: Everybody calls this a modern classic, so I'm finally finding out for myself whether that's true. (4/15/13)
Anton Chekhov, The Duel: I'm a sucker for Melville House's gorgeous novella series, and I've decided it isn't fair to judge the Russian Masters solely on my tepid response to Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment last summer. (4/5/13)
Hans Keilson, Comedy in a Minor Key: I've heard really great things about this novella, and seeing that it's a short European dark comedy, I figured it was right up my alley - even though I might be unfairly conflating it with Bohumil Hrabal's Too Loud a Solitude, one of my favorite reads of the past few years.(4/1/13)
William Butler Yeats, The Wind Among the Reeds: With Irish March winding down, I grabbed this collection off of Project Gutenberg, from a writer who is pretty much Ireland's all-time poet laureate. (3/29/13)
Samuel Beckett, Endgame: I read this for Irish March, although the play isn't particularly Irish in character, and Beckett originally wrote it in French. (3/28/13)
J.P. Donleavy, The Ginger Man: Another Irish novel for my annual Irish March. I hope the book is much better as a story than as a physical object, because my copy is a cheap-feeling 1988 reprint from Atlantic Monthly Press. (3/18/13)
William Trevor, Cheating at Canasta : Every March I read nothing but Irish fiction, and the Irishman Trevor is one of my favorite writers, and certainly one of the finest short story writers ever. So this was a no-brainer. The only question is why I hadn't read it already. (3/7/13)
Kurt Vonnegut, Armageddon in Retrospect: Vonnegut is Julie's favorite writer, and I greatly admire him as well. I picked this up a few years ago as a $5 remainder at B&N, and figured I should finally read it. And then dive into more of his novels. (2/27/13)
Elizabeth Crane, You Must Be This Happy to Enter: Akashic sent me this as a review copy years ago, but though it's been near the top of my list it keeps getting nudged aside for other books. This year I've resolved to read more female authors (my track record there is pretty shameful), and Crane gets raves from many readers I greatly respect, so I'm finally diving in to this one.(2/17/13)
Edward J. Rathke, Ash Cinema: Kuboa Press is publishing my first book, and since quality book design is very important to me, I bought this one (which sounds very interesting in itself) to see what the design looks like. And it looks great. (2/3/13)
Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad: I've never read any Atwood, and thought it would be better to ease into her work with this short book (a retelling of the Odysseus and Penelope myth) before taking on Oryx and Crake. (1/28/13)
Jeff Sypeck, Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles: Jeff is one of my favorite recent blogger discoveries, a medievalist who writes easily about the modern day. And this poetry project is particuarly inspired.(1/22/13)
Ben Tanzer, This American Life: Ben is a great friend and great writer, so I'll read anything he puts out. Including his grocery list. (1/20/13)
"...in floods of rancid bile o'erflows..."Another clunker from The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse, this time from John Armstrong (1709-79):
Advice to the StoutIn their introduction, Lewis and Lee wryly opine that Armstrong (a practicing physician) "enriched our heritage of English Poetry with a relentless analysis of the workings of the human stomach." I'm grateful that he never versified his noted prose work, Synopsis of the History and Cure on Venereal Diseases.
The languid stomach curses even the pure
Delicious fat, and all the race of oil:
For more the oily aliments relax
Its feeble tone; and with the eager lymph
(Fond to incorporate with all it meets)
Coyly they mix, and shun with slippery wiles
The woo'd embrace. The irresoluble oil,
So gentle late and blandishing, in floods
Of rancid bile o'erflows: what tumults hence,
What horrors rise, were nauseous to relate.
Choose leaner viands, ye whose jovial make
Too fast the gummy nutrient imbibes.
It's already been a very eventful week on the writing front. Besides Wheatyard being released yesterday, the collection Daddy Cool: An Anthology of Writing by Fathers For & About Kids (which includes my short story "Prague, Oklahoma") is now available from Artistically Declined Press. Other contributors are Ryan W. Bradley, Mark R. Brand, Nik Korpon, Caleb J. Ross, Corey Mesler, C.L. Bledsoe, Nathan Holic, Robert Arellano, J.A. Tyler, bl pawelek, Jason Fisk, Matthew Salesses, Seth Berg, Robert Duffer, Dave Housely, Dan Coxon, Fred Sasaki, John Barrios, Tom Williams, Davis Schneiderman, Patrick Wensink, William Walsh, Brian Allen Carr, Mike Smolarek, James Claffey, Joseph G. Peterson, Sean Beaudoin, Greg Santos, Richard Thomas and Ben Tanzer. Great bunch and, I suspect, great collection. I'm proud to be part of it.
"...Jelly of Fear, which shak’d and quiv’ring lay..."I’m browsing through The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse, a 1930 volume edited by D.B. Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee. The book is mostly what the title indicates, though with the twist that instead of being truly horrible verse penned by incompetent poets, the poems are the clunkers and howlers of the greats, including Wordsworth, Keats and Byron. This is by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1624-74):
From “Nature’s Dessert”Oh my, that’s bad. (I can imagine both Biscuits of Love and Jelly of Fear being bands in Spinal Tap.) And that title suggests this is only an excerpt of an even longer piece - although (fortunately?) I haven’t been able to find the full text online.
Sweet marmalade of kisses newly gather’d,
Preserved children, which were newly father’d,
Sugar of Beauty, which melts away soon,
Marchpane of Youth, and childish macaroon:
Sugar-plum words, which fall sweet from lips,
And water-promises mould’ring like chips;
Biscuits of Love which crumble all away,
Jelly of Fear, which shak’d and quiv’ring lay:
Then was a fresh green-sickness cheese brought in,
And tempting fruit, like that which Eve made sin.
Lewis and Lee’s wry introductions to each poet are consistently wonderful, including this on Cavendish:
After the Restoration it was her steady habit to dictate metaphysical and philosophical speculations at all hours, and the ladies attending her were compelled (according to Cibber) to sleep near at hand to her Grace in order that at the summons of her bell they might rise instantly during the night to record in writing inspirations which might otherwise have been lost for ever.And what a loss that would have been.
Sometimes, context is everythingI started reading Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping this week, but the first few chapters felt sluggish. I don't know if that was due to the writing style or my mood - probably both - but I seriously considered invoking the Page 50 Rule and abandoning the book when I reached that page. But this morning on the train, during heavy thunderstorms and with a view outside of torrents gushing down the hillsides and deep standing water, I read a vivid passage in which the author described heavy spring floods in the mountain town of Fingerbone. Robinson's makeshift family stoically retreats to their second floor, coming downstairs only to cook meals and refuel the fire, wading through floodwater in tall rubber boots and sending waves cascading into the kitchen walls. Looking at the flooding outside my train and then back to the page, Robinson's narrative suddenly came to life for me. It's still not quite enough to compensate for those early chapters, but at least it's keeping me reading.
The darkness of Knut HamsunInteresting review here of Knut Hamsun: The Dark Side of Literary Brilliance by Monika Žagar, who skips the apologies commonly made on Hamsun's behalf, instead arguing that he was indeed a Nazi, and explores how all of that came about. Hamsun is yet another case of "celebrate the art, not the artist." Norway's championing of Hamsun is understandable in a small, low-profile country that is eager for heroes, but then again, even if they shunned Hamsun they would still have Ibsen, Grieg and Munch to cherish.
I might get around to reading Žagar's study eventually, though it probably won't be very soon, since I've already had Robert Ferguson's Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun sitting unread on my shelf for several years now. And a $30 university press paperback is also a bit hard to stomach.
"...a sort of warm, speculative indifference seized upon her...""Once barely sipping at wines, cocktails, brandy-and-soda, she now took to the latter, or, rather, to a new whisky-and-soda combination known as 'highball' with a kind of vehemence which had little to do with a taste for the thing itself. True, drinking is, after all, a state of mind, and not an appetite. She had found on a number of occasions when she had been quarreling with Lynde or was mentally depressed that in partaking of these drinks a sort of warm, speculative indifference seized upon her. She was no longer so sad. She might cry, but it was in a soft, rainy, relieving way. Her sorrows were as strange, enticing figures in dreams. They moved about and around her, not as things actually identical with her, but as ills which she could view at a distance. Sometimes both she and they (for she saw herself also as in a kind of mirage or inverted vision) seemed beings of another state, troubled, but not bitterly painful. The old nepenthe of the bottle had seized upon her."
- Theodore Dreiser, The Titan
Old-Fashioneds and relish traysBrief interview here at Agate's blog with Ron Faiola, author of Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experience, which includes this great insight:
What is it about those relish trays?After being underwhelmed last year by Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America, I'm wary of another documentary-film-to-book (filmmakers aren't necessarily good writers) but I'll still keep my eyes on this one.
A relish tray brings the salad bar to your table—something healthy to nibble on while you decide whether to get the king cut of prime rib or the all-you-can-eat fish fry.
Carey on Haruf
I usually don't have much interest in any of those "(number) (things) you should (action)" lists, primarily due to their implication that I'm not smart enough to figure out such things on my own. This list at GQ ("The New Canon: The 21 Books from the 21st Century Every Man Should Read") would ordinarily be one of those, especially since I'm never without a book to read. It's not a terribly interesting list, almost painfully predictable (Franzen, Roth, yawn) and inexplicably picks Ian McEwan's contrived Saturday instead of his magnificent Atonement.
But I do appreciate the handful of authors on the list who generously gave their own choices for essential 21st Century books, two of which I heartily agree with: George Saunders gives a nod to Stuart Dybek's wonderful I Sailed With Magellan, while Peter Carey praises Kent Haruf.
Kent Haruf is one of the great poets of the modern novel. He has an extraordinary capacity for love. He will give you the smell of the dirt and grasses of the High Plains of Colorado. He will never fail to engage your heart, but because he is an honest man, he will have you grasp the nettles. If you have never entered his beautiful singing sentences, I envy you your first time. If you do already know that Plainsong and Eventide are masterpieces, get ready for Benediction, out this year. This is why writers write and readers read.Technically, however, Plainsong is from the 20th Century - it was published in 1999. But I concur on Eventide, which was almost as good as its mighty predecessor.
(Via The Literary Saloon.)
"...the sultriness and the transparent gentle waves vexed her and whispered to her that she must live, live..."From Anton Chekhov's novella The Duel:
Nadezhda Fyodorovna adjusted her straw hat and cast herself out to sea. She swam about four fathoms then floated on her back. She could see the sea to the horizon, the steamships, people on shore, the town, and all of this along with the sultriness and the transparent gentle waves vexed her and whispered to her that she must live, live...A sailboat rushed past her quickly, energetically slicing through waves and air. The man sitting at the wheel glanced at her, and she found being glanced at pleasant...The story takes place during summer in the blistering hot Caucasus, where swimming in the Black Sea is a daily (and sometimes twice- or even thrice-daily) ritual, especially for the slacker government bureaucrats who live in the resort town, who seem to have little to do other than swim, drink and gossip. The bitterly unhappy couple at the center of the story, Nadezhda and Laevsky, are one of the least sympathetic couples I've come across in quite some time - vain, lazy and self-pitying. (Even in Madame Bovary, I felt sorry for the hapless husband.) I'm almost hoping for misfortune to befall them.
"...everyone who makes a sacrifice needs a little sense of satisfaction..."From Hans Keilson's Comedy in a Minor Key:
She had secretly imagined what it would be like on liberation day, the three of them arm in arm walking out of their house. Everyone would see right away what he was from his pale face, the color of a shut-in, which his appearance only emphasized even more. How the neighbors and everyone on the street would look when he suddenly walked out of their house and strolled up and down the street with them. It would give them a little sense of satisfaction, and everyone who makes a sacrifice needs a little sense of satisfaction. And then you'd feel that you, you personally, even if only just a little bit, had won the war.That last sentence is just so quietly, subtly devastating, as Marie finally starts to realize how dramatically the travails of her and Wim pale in comparison to Nico's plight. I didn't really connect with the first half of the book, but toward the end it really started to click. This book is due for another reading, a year or two from now.
It had all gone up in smoke. It wasn't even a dream anymore. None of the three of them had any luck. But really, him least of all.
Quote"If a good sentence occurs in an otherwise boring paragraph, I cut it out, rubber-cement it to a sheet of typewriter paper, and put it in a folder. It’s just like catching a fish in a creek. I pull out a sentence and slip a line through the gills and put it on a chain and am very careful not to mislay it. Sometimes I try that sentence in ten different places until finally it finds the place where it will stay — where the surrounding sentences attach themselves to it and it becomes part of them." - William Maxwell
"'There they are again,' the doctor said suddenly, and he stood up. Unexpectedly, like his words, the noise of the approaching airplane motors slipped into the silence of the death chamber."
- Hans Keilson, Comedy in a Minor Key
"Now that I'm dead I know everything."
- Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad
"In the end Jack Burdette came back to Holt after all."
- Kent Haruf, Where You Once Belonged
"It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days."
- Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."
- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
"I'd caught a slight cold when I changed trains at Chicago; and three days in New York - three days of babes and booze while I waited to see The Man - hadn't helped it any."
- Jim Thompson, Savage Night
"Since the end of the war, I have been on this line, as they say: a long, twisted line stretching from Naples to the cold north, a line of locals, trams, taxis and carriages."
- Aharon Appelfeld, The Iron Tracks
"The schoolmaster was leaving the village, and everybody seemed sorry."
- Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure
"Early November. It's nine o'clock. The titmice are banging against the window. Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again. I don't know what they want that I have."
- Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses
"Picture the room where you will be held captive."
- Stona Fitch, Senseless
"Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk."
- Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry
"Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon...Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come."
- O.E. Rölvaag, Giants in the Earth
"Click! ... Here it was again. He was walking along the cliff at Hunstanton and it had come again ... Click! ..."
- Patrick Hamilton, Hangover Square
"It is 1983. In Dorset the great house at Woodcombe Park bustles with life. In Ireland the more modest Kilneagh is as quiet as a grave."
- William Trevor, Fools of Fortune
"The cell door slammed behind Rubashov."
- Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon
(A compendium of memorable opening lines of novels, updated occasionally as I come across new discoveries.)
Mencken on drinkingH.L. Mencken (with whom I am proud to share a birthday), penned this wise piece, "How to Drink Like A Gentleman", in 1935.
A good dinner is made doubly good by being washed down in the ancient manner of civilized men, and a good sleep is made doubly sound and refreshing if the sleeper first untangles his nerves and quiets his brain with a few shots of reliable stuff.Considering how vehemently Mencken harangued against Prohibition, I'll rely on his moral authority on this important subject.
William Butler YeatsAs I wind down Irish March, I just started William Butler Yeats' poetry collection The Wind Among the Reeds. Here's an unusually sunny and upbeat selection:
THE FIDDLER OF DOONEY
When I play on my fiddle in Dooney,
Folk dance like a wave of the sea;
My cousin is priest in Kilvarnet,
My brother in Moharabuiee.
I passed my brother and cousin:
They read in their books of prayer;
I read in my book of songs
I bought at the Sligo fair.
When we come at the end of time,
To Peter sitting in state,
He will smile on the three old spirits,
But call me first through the gate;
For the good are always the merry,
Save by an evil chance,
And the merry love the fiddle
And the merry love to dance:
And when the folk there spy me,
They will all come up to me,
With 'Here is the fiddler of Dooney!'
And dance like a wave of the sea.
This poem, however, is much more typical of the collection:
HANRAHAN REPROVES THE CURLEW
O, curlew, cry no more in the air,
Or only to the waters in the West;
Because your crying brings to my mind
Passion-dimmed eyes and long heavy hair
That was shaken out over my breast:
There is enough evil in the crying of wind.
Lost love seems to have been one of Yeats' obsessions, and usually involving a woman with rich, flowing hair.
"Life is hard by the yard, son. But you don’t have to do it by the yard. By the inch it’s a cinch."
(Photo by Art Shay.)
My hero Nelson Algren was born on this date, in 1909. (That photo above is one of my favorites of his, as he holds the typed manuscript of Chicago: City on the Make in his Wabansia Avenue apartment.) He's my hero despite his many failures, both personal and artistic; it's that imperfection that makes him so gritty and real to me, giving me the feeling that I knew the man even though he died long before I ever discovered his writing.
"And I started thinking again."This is pretty wonderful: a teenager's letter to Cory Doctorow, thanking him for his book Little Brother and how it changed his life.
After (and during) the reading of Little Brother the haze had lifted and was replaced by an energetic excitement that jumpstarted my brain to life. My neurons hummed like lawnmowers. A refreshing feeling of urgency and eagerness surged through me-- a feeling I’d not experienced since being eight years old on Christmas. And I started thinking again.When you're writing, it's easy to feel isolated and that your work - while personally rewarding - doesn't matter much to anyone else. It must be an incredible feeling to have someone tell you otherwise, like this kid did.
I've enjoyed the blog Forgotten Bookmarks for several years now, and was pleased to recently discover a forgotten bookmark on my own. The slip of paper shown above was found in a 1988 reissue of J.P. Donleavy's The Ginger Man by Atlantic Monthly Press, and came from the desk of the publisher's publicity director, Laurence Hughes. Presumably this was a review copy of the book, and the informational slip was sent along with the book to the reviewer.
If this sort of thing actually interests you, here's my first forgotten bookmark find. Though that first one was originally planted in the book by me. It's much more fun to find the ones from strangers - I'm still hoping to find something as grand as the ones Michael Popek shares at Forgotten Bookmarks.
"I’ve written a book," you say. "Now how do I get published?"I wrote a lengthy column, "'I’ve written a book,' you say. 'Now how do I get published?'", over at Contrary which relates the publishing odyssey of Wheatyard and offers some advice to aspiring writers. Actually, when you consider that's my first column there since August, I guess the column isn't that long after all, at least on a per-month basis.
De Quincey, the scholarly addictVery interesting piece here at Lapham's by Colin Dickey about English writer Thomas De Quincey, best known for Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. I first became aware of De Quincey via Jane Addams' Twenty Years at Hull-House, and have been meaning to read Confessions ever since. I already have it downloaded on my phone but haven't yet dived in; I'm now thinking instead that if I want to do a serious reading of the book I should pick up a decent used copy from somewhere.
The Distressed Poet...or Reader...or...
I love this painting by Hogarth, called "The Distressed Poet." I can totally sympathize with the poet's frustration over his concentration being destroyed by chatter. I felt the same way on my train, when either writing or reading, before Metra blessedly instituted their Quiet Cars which I've religiously ridden in ever since.
(Image via Better Living Through Beowulf.)
NyetWow: Russian author Mikhail Shiskin has refused to be part of his country's official delegation to this year's Book Expo America.
A country where power has been seized by a corrupt, criminal regime, where the state is a pyramid of thieves, where elections have become farce, where courts serve the authorities, not the law, where there are political prisoners, where state television has become a prostitute, where packs of impostors pass insane laws that are returning everyone to the Middle Ages—such a country cannot be my Russia. I cannot and do not want to participate in an official Russian delegation representing that Russia.Brave man, though I suspect Putin will make his life considerably less comfortable in the days ahead. While the author currently makes his home in both Zurich and Moscow, he'll probably be spending a lot more time in Switzerland soon.
I received a review copy of David Albahari's Leeches a few years ago, and after reading the jacket copy the book sounded interesting, so I put it on my shelf for future reading but then mostly forgot about it. The other day I took the book down again and finally paged through it. Check out the photos above, from three different sections of the book. Anything look strange to you? That's right - no paragraph breaks. In fact, the entire book is a single, uninterrupted, 309-page paragraph. And with no quotation marks on any of the dialogue. Why the hell would somebody write something like this? Okay, maybe you can pass off the writing as artistic self-indulgence, but why would any publisher (presumably more clear-headed and practical) publish it? I know it's hard to differentiate yourself in a very crowded market for literature, but if you create something as convoluted as this to set yourself apart, and make it so difficult to read, what's the point? Knowing the endurance required to read something like this, and respecting my fellow commuters enough to spare them from having a book flung in their direction, I definitely won't be reading this one.
Tournament of Books, for better or worseThe Tournament of Books is back again, with three acclaimed Iraq War novels engaged in a play-in to reach the regular round of sixteen. In an inspired choice, the books are judged by Nathan Bradley, "an active-duty Army officer and writer", who obviously has unique insight into the inner workings of the military while also knowing his way around the printed page and what makes good writing.
Thing is, I wish the ToB was as inspired in its choice of contestants. For the most part, it's the same bunch of big-house books and writers that everybody in the literary fiction world has already been talking about/hyping incessantly over the past year, with the only real surprise being Chris Ware's odd graphic collection Building Stories. I haven't read any of the contestants, and have little interest in any of them other than Alice Munro's latest story collection. (My wife, however, read and loved Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, which I expect to reach the finals.) And I'm also saddened to see ToB all but jump the shark, adopting corporate behemoth Barnes & Noble as sponsor instead of beloved indie Powell's. (A full shark-jump, of course, would involve Amazon.)
Still, I know I'll avidly follow along. It's rare these days to have such an enthusiastic, communal discussion of literature, especially one that unfolds in real time, so even if the books do little for me at least I'll enjoy the proceedings.
"I want to see Egan reach for the revolver in the worn leather case, and Conroy take the handcuffs from the glass dish.""Hunting Human Game" is an odd little piece by Frank Norris, the author best known for the muckracking novels The Octopus, McTeague and The Pit. It tells the true story of a fugitive killer from Australia and the authorities who await his arrival by ship in San Francisco. It starts as straight third-person reportage, then introduces the writer into the story as he waits with the lawmen in rented rooms along the wharf.
I remember that the room was warm. That there were pictures of barks and brigs about the walls, that a pair of handcuffs were in a glass dish on the top of a dresser, and that, lying in a cubby hole of a desk, was Detective Egan’s revolver in a very worn case. The detectives impressed one as positively jolly.That setting description is just marvelous - I can totally picture it in my mind - and yet, despite all that narrative buildup, the conclusion of the story is totally ambiguous. The writer isn't present at the killer's arrest and, in fact, at the end the arrest hasn't even happened yet. Instead of a first-person account of the climatic drama, Norris imagines it happening. Not quite journalism, not quite fiction. Unique.
As a side note, I've been going back and forth over what to read for my Summer of Classics. I've thought about reading modernists like Hemingway and Faulkner (both of whom I've sorely under-read), then instead I've considered going all the way back to the likes of The Odyssey and Dante's Inferno. But now, after reading this, I'm thinking about realist American fiction of the early 20th Century, specifically The Octopus (which has been on my to-read shelf for many years) and Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons. I probably won't decide for sure which direction to take until, oh, May 29th. No hurry or anything.
Quote"Of course the rough draft is always a ghastly mess bearing little relation to the finished result, but all the same it is the main part of the job." - George Orwell
"...trailing clouds of glory do we come..."At Better Living Through Beowulf, Robin Bates writes a lovely reflection on childhood and his grandchildren, within the context of Wordsworth's "Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood."
But I also think of them differently than Wordsworth. It’s as though the poet cares more about himself than about the children he is watching. When he laments that they will grow up as he did, it is William that he mourns for.Those, I suspect, are some very lucky grandkids.
Whereas when I am watching Esmé and Alban, I don’t see a loss but a building towards something. They are learning machines, absorbing everything around them, and I imagine what they might do with that knowledge, just as I remain excited by what their fathers are doing with their knowledge.
Irish March returnsIrish March, my annual Irish-literature month, really snuck up on me this year. Usually I have several books planned in advance, but until this week I had almost completely forgotten about it, so once I realized March was fast approaching I had to scramble. Fortunately, being a huge fan of the prolific William Trevor means I always have several unread books of his in the house, so I'll finally read his story collection Cheating at Canasta, which was the last book I bought at Brent Books before it closed for good in 2009. Scanning my shelves, I also found Samuel Beckett's play Endgame, which I will also read. But knowing the Trevor and Beckett probably won't take me a full month to read, I realized I needed a third book but nothing immediately came to mind.
I browsed through my to-read list on Goodreads and finally saw J.P. Donleavy's The Ginger Man (which I picked up in a used bookstore in Hilton Head two years ago) and was drawn to the Irish surname, but wasn't sure if either the author or the subject matter was particularly Irish. Thus I was quite pleased to discover that although Donleavy was born in New York City, his parents were Irish emigrants and he resettled in Ireland after WWII, and the book is set in Ireland (and is even considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century). And it was once banned in both Ireland and the U.S. for obscenity, so it will more than likely be an entertaining read. So this year, Irish March will be Trevor, Donleavy and Beckett. Looking forward to it.
Quote"The human race has not devised any way of dissolving barriers, getting to know the other chap fast, breaking the ice, that is one-tenth as handy and efficient as letting you and the other chap, or chaps, cease to be totally sober at about the same rate in agreeable surroundings." - Kingsley Amis, Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis
Interview with Michael CzyzniejewskiHair Lit, Volume 1 is a new collection of short stories inspired by 1980s heavy metal bands, which is edited by Nick Ostdick and published by Jason Behrends at Orange Alert Press. I'm very pleased to publish the follwing interview with Michael Czyzniejewski, whose piece "You've Got Another Thing Coming: A Deconstruction in Nine Parts" appears in the collection. Mike is a Chicago native who currently teaches at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri, and has published two books, including Chicago Stories: 40 Dramatic Fictions, which was one of my favorite books of 2012.
"You've Got Another Thing Coming: A Deconstruction in Nine Parts" (inspired by the Judas Priest song) is an unusual piece. Although it has some fictional narrative elements (consisting primarily of two personal anecdotes of the narrator), most of the piece comes across (to me, anyway) as more of a lecture that riffs on various aspects of the song's title, including heaven and hell, karma, and the odd fact that the song title incorrectly references the original idiom from which it derives, giving the title a very different meaning from the idiom.
Pete Anderson: Mike, it's great to finally connect with you. I know, from your afterword in the book, that the phrase "you've got another thing coming" has probably preoccupied you for quite a few years now. Please pass along that anecdote, and tell how the phrase evolved into "Deconstruction."
Mike Czyzniejewski: Great to be here, Pete! Yeah, when Nick Ostdick asked me to do one of these, I was pretty excited because I immediately knew I was going to do this Judas Priest song. I wasn't a fan of JP, and I never got into the hair metal bands, but this song always amused me because of its misuse of the idiom. About eight years ago, while I was still Editor of Mid-American Review, we were proofreading an issue and Karen Craigo, my co-Editor, marked the phrase "you've got another thing coming" as incorrect. When I went into the files to make the change, I had to ask her what was wrong. She didn't understand my question, assuming it was as obvious to me as it was to her. So we, and a couple of other editors, got into a discussion, Karen claiming that the true idiom was "you 've got another think coming," as in, "if you think this, then you got another think coming." This made no sense. Like I said, I wasn't a metal fan, but I'd heard the JP song, maybe on Beavis & Butthead, maybe just growing up on Chicago classic rock stations. But JP definitely made me think that the author was correct and Karen was way off (which she never was). Besides, "you've got another think coming?" That just sounded wrong.
What ensued was actually a pretty heated argument. This was before smart phones and wi-fi, so we had to go to the office to use the Internet to check it out. Karen was right, it turned out, or at least mostly right. The historical term is indeed "you've got another think coming," with a K, but the error had worked its way into our lexicon and many more Google hits led to "thing" with a G. We decided to change it and see what the author said in galleys. Seth Fried was on staff then and I remember him getting particularly upset because he didn't think anyone would know the original term and that it would look like we were including a typo. I remember him leaving in a huff, so this debate caused some pretty intense emotional reactions. In the end, we changed it, the author did ask us about the change, and when we explained the true usage, he relented and it went in as "think."
From then on, whenever we'd do a proofing test for MAR staff members. we'd throw that on there. Of course, nobody ever got that. When we explained the error, we received quite a few puzzled and disbelieving looks.
So when Nick asked, I immediately thought of this anecdote and wanted to get something into a story about the members of JP not realizing their mistake (and of course not caring). It seemed hard to get this into a narrative with characters, and since I'd just gotten into a phase of writing list stories, I began to write about regret and karma--themes heavily implied by the song--in different ways. After the first couple of drafts, the nonfiction voices started sounding a lot like the literary theory I'd read in grad school, and I thought it would be funny to talk about a hair metal song--in a hair metal anthology--in that voice. I looked up literary theory sites and tried to work in as many terms as I could. But I also wanted it to read like a story, for the parts to be different, so I worked in the anecdote about St. Maxmillian and the nuns in the van, as Catholics (including me) have a great sense of guilt and karma than anyone.
PA: I've always thought it was "thing" too - probably due to the JP video being in heavy MTV rotation during my bored high school years - and it wasn't until recently that I started noticing the "think" version. The latter makes more sense, especially when preceded by "I you think..." I got a laugh out of you noting that the band botched the phrase even with "If you think I'll let it go, you're mad..." preceding it. I almost wonder if Halford actually sang "think", but the record company screwed up and printed it as "thing", and the band either didn't notice or didn't care.
The structure of this piece is unusual, especially the narration. Do you see this as a nonfiction piece, with you as the actual narrator riffing on various aspects of the song's title and including personal anecdotes (the nuns in the van, and St. Maximilian) to illustrate your point? Or is the narrator, and the whole piece, entirely fictional?
MC: I think it's fiction. Or I know it's fiction. There's definitely an affected voice in the lit-crit deconstruction parts. I never use "trope," e.g., in my everyday conversation. The anecdotes are fabricated, too, and aren't supposed to be the same person speaking, though it's okay if people read it that way. St. Maxmillian was canonized when I was in grade school, in Catholic grade school, and there was a priest at my parish who was pretty obsessed with that story, so I've always known about him and wanted to work him into a story. The nun anecdote is also fabricated. I know that intersection—South Chicago Ave and Stony Island—because that a short cut out of the city to the south suburbs, one I'd take from Wrigley to where my mom lived. I guess I just thought it would be funny to depict some guy farting into a van full of nuns: I really wish I had some great literary or thematic reason behind that. Hot sweaty nuns + horrid fart = something to throw all the lit crit talk off balance, I guess.
PA: Yeah, I figured it was fiction, especially after the narrator uses "Judeo-Christian" in the opening section, a mostly academic term that really doesn't come up in everyday conversation - and from what I know of you, it seems you'd be much too down-to-earth to toss around pretentious terms like that. But, wow, until now I assumed that the whole thing (other than, obviously, the record review blurbs) was a single narrator. Is each section actually a separate narrator?
MC: I imagined the two narrative sections to be separate, for sure, as with the numbered sections, I pictured an anything-goes scenario, roving POV, etc. So when I imagined those characters, I was imagining two different people. Since I usually don't put any description of characters into my stories—a combination of a bad habit and wanting everyone to be the "Everyman"—that sometimes gets lost, I think. But I'm also not sad that you or anyone else might pair them up. As for the voice in the more faux-critical areas, I think that's definitely different, but if someone were to think that this is the same character, just expounding on the Priest, either too invested in reader response theory or high on mescaline, then have at it.
PA: Okay, now that I've read through it again, I see four narrators: parts 1-4 are the philosopher-critic; part 5 is the regular guy, regaling his buddies over beers at the corner bar; parts 6-7 are the music critic (very different from the philosopher); and parts 8-9 are the profound cultural commentator, who is quite possibly a This American Life contributor. Agree/disagree?
And which of these narrators was the most fun for you to write? For me, it would be the philosopher, since I enjoy mocking pretentious blowhards (I can just hear those parts being narrated by Kelsey Grammer, in his Frasier Crane voice), especially those who try to divine deep meaning from a Judas Priest chorus, and my humor is more wry than regaling or profound.
MC: I remember taking lit theory in grad school and wondering if someone was pulling my leg with some of the things that people came up with, let along put in text books and studied. I understand the need for perspectives, to understand those, but the language, style, and tone all that stuff was written in always cracked me up. It was like The New York Times Crossword every time I sat down to try to read it.
I don't think I have a favorite voice, but I did love the intermingling of all the different parts to get the whole. I really like the anecdote about the nuns. I've been at the intersection (Stony Island and South Chicago Avenue) a thousand times and have seen guys selling water, dish towels, peanuts, inflatable toys, and a whole bunch of other things, just because Stony gets backlogged heading south at 95th (but it's still better than taking the Dan Ryan). I've sat at light after light, with no air conditioning, and my imagination has wandered so often, to many different places, so I'm glad I got one of those stories into the mix. And farting on nuns? Come on. That's basically the team handshake for Judas Priest, isn't it?
PA: Yeah, I would guess that any band named Judas Priest probably isn't too devout, nor most of its fans. I can totally picture those two dudes wearing black-sleeved Priest world tour t-shirts, circa 1982, which would probably have horrified those nuns almost as much as Eddie's fart.
Time to start winding this down, so here's a slight tangent. As I mentioned earlier, your book Chicago Stories was one of my favorite reads of 2012. For those who haven't read the book, it's a collection of fictional monologues by famous and infamous characters from throughout Chicago's history. And your Hair Lit story is mostly told in monologue, too. Do the book and story share a common genesis at all? Or do they just have the same narration device?
MC: I think I was more in tune with research with the Chicago pieces. For each one, I read as much as I could about the person (or as much as I needed to to get a story down), making sure to catch their voice, their cadence, their catchphrases, anything that had to be in the story. The Hair Lit piece was more just seeing where an idea took me, getting into the mode and figuring it out. Two different processes all together.
PA: You must have done a bangup job on the research for the book then, because for me those voices were all very distinct and realistic. And in their final creations, I can definitely sense the different processes behind the book (with all of that research) and the more improvisational feel of "You've Got Another Thing Coming." Though obviously there was also improvisation involved with the book, and research with the story, as with any good fiction.
I'd like to sincerely thank you for the great Hair Lit story as well as your book, and talking at length about how the story came about. Especially since you're an expectant father with a new arrival coming within days! In the days before my daughter was born, I never would have had the courtesy and patience to trade numerous emails with a guy 500 miles away whom I've never even met. I really appreciate you taking time out of your hectic schedule to talk. Best of luck to you and your family, and keep going with your writing!
MC: Thanks, Pete! I enjoyed doing the interview, much like I enjoyed writing the story. (Nick) Ostdick put together a pretty can't-miss book. Who doesn't want to read a book of stories inspired by heavy metal songs? I just got my copies the other day and have been eating them up. If Comedy Central were to roast an anthology, this would be the anthology that they would roast.
And perhaps one day someone will do an anthology of stories inspired by stories inspired by heavy metal songs, and someone will write about my story, and you'll interview that person. If that happens, think of our time together, download the Judas Priest song onto your iPod, position your head forward, and bob.
(Note: The end of this interview was postponed for a few weeks by the arrival of Mike's second son, Keats Márquez Czyzniejewski. They are obviously quite a literary family!)
Occupational Alphabet, 1850
This oddity was apparently a school primer, though I don't think the content would have kept many children interested for very long. There are also some interesting musings here on how many of the occupations mentioned in the book still exist today.
(Via The Paris Review.)
Edward J. Rathke, Ash CinemaAsh Cinema tangentially addresses the life of the fictional avant-garde filmmaker Sebastian Falke, from three very different perspectives: an old man who once collaborated on Falke's films; a woman who was formerly the platonic lover (lover, that is, in everything but the physical sense) of a writer who was obsessed with finding Falke and his long-lost films; and the teenage girl who was Falke's lover at the very end of his life. Though (tangentially) about Falke, the book is really about grief, longing and trying to bring lost loves back across decades through writing about them. The book is haunting, obsessive, mournful and yet somehow triumphant, and eloquently and passionately written. A thoroughly impressive debut novel from a very talented young writer.
Austin Kleon posted a bunch of love-related blackout poems yesterday. The one above is my favorite.
Boy's gotta have it.
Fifty of Alvin Lustig's book covers for New Directions, in postcards. Sweet.
(Via Vol. 1 Brooklyn.)
Very cool: the British Library's thousand-year-old manuscript of Beowulf is now fully viewable online. (Announcement here.) Historic literary treasures like this are a rare exception to my general objection to the electronic version of books. I'd never be allowed to get my filthy mitts on this relic anyway.
"If the intention was to further divide people, this attack failed because it has achieved the opposite."
The anonymous writer behind Spitalfields Life posts a report on the aftermath of the firebombing of London anarchist publisher The Freedom Press.
"It might be disheartening, if it were not for the flood of well-wishing and offers of help we have received from all over the world. Disparate groups in the radical hinterland have laid aside their differences and come together in solidarity."I certainly hope the perpetrators never invoke the right to freedom of speech or expression to justify any of their actions.
Guthrie the novelistI'm adding House of Earth to my list.
There are passages in the novel where you can hear Woody Guthrie the lyricist. He plays with words, veers into poetry, wanders off into streams of consciousness. Brinkley says the book does not have a strong narrative, but Guthrie makes deft use of language to bring his characters to life.My recently revived interest in Billy Bragg also has me rethinking my early-2000s selloff of Mermaid Avenue, his collaboration with Wilco in which they created and performed music for a late-discovered trove of unpublished Guthrie lyrics. I don't remember how much I made from that sale, but I'm sure it was less than the ten bucks it will cost me to re-buy the album on iTunes. Unless I can find the CD at my local used record store.
"And he is able to really do a great job of capturing dialects and the slang expressions of a region," says Brinkley. "But it's done with a poetic flourish. You can almost speed-read the novel out loud, and when you do there is a musicality to it."
"...the tug of war coursing through him..."From Ash Cinema, by Edward J. Rathke:
Each step to the flower brought youth and each step to the notebook dug his grave. He stood between, where boundary met boundary, the draw of the past and the promise of future. For twenty three minutes he stood, inert, weaving into the fiber of his life, each one, the past, the future, sewn to his heart, to that place at the center of him that houses all that he is, where a name sits with a promise.Good book so far. Very haunting.
Barnes & NobleMy friend Mark Athitakis pens an ode to the often-maligned (often by me) Barnes & Noble.
The internet fixes this, allegedly. If I were 16 now, I could theoretically discover Lipstick Traces on Amazon. But claiming that online retail negates the brick-and-mortar bookstore is like saying we don’t have to worry about socializing in person now that we have Facebook and Twitter.I can't say that I quite share his appreciation. B&N and Borders didn't reach my distant corner of suburbia until after I left for the city as a young adult, so neither store was part of my formative reading years and I never had the sort of pilgrimages that Mark describes. However, in my early twenties I did become addicted to the B&N mail order catalog which somehow magically arrived in my mailbox one day, and from there I regularly bought obscure remaindered/overstock titles for ridiculously cheap prices. For a few years, then, the catalog was my primary source of books, until I moved to the city and its indie and used bookstores. So I'll always be grateful to B&N for that old catalog, though their stores have done little for me.
"Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary..."Edgar Allan Poe's legendary poem "The Raven" was first published on this date in 1845, in the New York Evening Mirror. The Poe Society of Baltimore reprints this transcript of the published poem, including the editor's remarkable description.
In our opinion, it is the most effective single example of "fugitive poetry" ever published in this country; and unsurpassed in English poetry for subtle conception, masterly ingenuity of versification, and consistent, sustaining of imaginative lift and "pokerishness." It is one of these "dainties bred in a book" which we feed on. It will stick to the memory of everybody who reads it.As much as I love the poem, however, what really sticks to my memory is the reenactment of the poem on The Simpsons, with Bart as the raven and Homer as the tormented protagonist. Because that's what great art does - it creates other great art.
And if anyone could enlighten me on what exactly "fugitive poetry" is, I'm all ears. Google returns 131,000 hits on that term, but I still can't find a definition.
Quote"I don’t hesitate to compare the best student work with the work of masters. This is not meant to cheapen the marvelous but to evoke it. The hope is to make students fall in love with sublimity and to show them it’s not out of reach." - Richard G. Stern
Rest in peace.
From the Hooverville Public Library
At Forgotten Bookmarks, Michael Popek presents this woefully treated book, which is riddled with either BBs or buckshot. Which book? A biography of Herbert Hoover. I can't help imagining that the shooter is conveying politcal commentary across the decades.
The next five indie/college press books that I want to buyKirby Gann, Ghosting (Ig Publishing)
Patrick Michael Finn, From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet (Black Lawrence Press)
Steve Himmer, The Bee-Loud Glade (Atticus Books)
Mark Costello, Middle Murphy (University of Illinois Press)
Dmitry Samarov, Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab (University of Chicago Press)
"The Tell-Tale Heart"Yesterday was the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe, who was born on January 19, 1809. Poe is one of my childhood favorites, so I marked the occasion by re-reading "The Tell-Tale Heart", the first Poe story that I ever encountered. The story is a masterpiece of tightly-wound mania, and remarkably short and concise given Poe's penchant for long-winded, florid prose. If you haven't read the story in a while, do yourself a favor and read it again. It's truly great.
My wonderful fourth-grade teacher, Patrick Murphy, read "The Tell-Tale Heart" aloud to our enraptured class. It was one of many reading choices (Beowulf and Shakespeare were others) which seemed pretty advanced for fourth graders (and my class wasn't exactly packed with intellectuals), which was one of the things I loved about Mr. Murphy. He never underestimated or talked down to us, and encouraged us to pursue our passions, even if that meant we were out of our desks for much of the school day. He was one of the best teachers I ever had.
"Library turns to pole dancing to entice new readers"Seems to me that if you have to entice people into the library with pole-dancing classes, ping pong and massages, they're probably not readers to begin with, and won't return for a second visit when you're no longer offering those diversions. So skip the diversions altogether.
"...a poetry of gestures and inflections and shadows..."Charles Baxter, who edited Library of America's recent volume Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories, reflects on Anderson, particularly as a fellow Midwest writer:
What you showed in public was not what you often felt in private, and what you felt, or knew, in private, you could not say. You can find this division anywhere, but it typically arises in places where reticence is given great value, where open spaces separate people. It creates a poetry of gestures and inflections and shadows.I finally read Winesburg, Ohio a few years ago and loved it, but haven't read any more Anderson since. I might next dip into either these stories or the 1916 novel Windy McPherson's Son, after reading Carl S. Smith's extended (and favorable) discussion of the book last year in Chicago and the American Literary Imagination, 1880-1920.