2015-04-08T10:27:05.198-04:00Back in the very early days of this blog, I spent several months slowly making my way through Ron Chernow's superb biography Alexander Hamilton. I recommended it to Wendy, and she also became a fan of both the book and its subject.
2015-04-07T10:16:34.468-04:00Anthony Trollope's 200th birthday takes place on April 24, and Karen at Books and Chocolate is hosting an Anthony Trollope Bicenntennial Celebration all this month in his honor.Due to my reading slump, who knows if I'll get a Trollope novel completed by the end of the month, so I thought I'd repost a review from 2010. I read The Way We Live Now then as part of the Classic Circuit's Trollope Tour.The Way We Live Now, a satirical attack on the "commercial profligacy"of early 1870s England, is regarded as one of Anthony Trollope's finest novels, if not his masterpiece. In the summer of 2009, Newsweek put it at the top of its list of works that "open a window on the times we live in," explaining "[t]he title says it all. Trollope's satire of financial (and moral) crisis in Victorian England even has a Madoff-before-Madoff, a tragic swindler named Augustus Melmotte."The audience of Trollope's day was less appreciative of its portrayal. Reviewers took issue with and resented the title itself; they argued that Trollope had not created a novel that was an honest characterization of their world. According to Marion Dodd, who wrote the introduction the 1950 edition, Trollope had peaked in the 1860s: "Mercenary marriages, abuse of the wealthy and their ill-gotten gains, satirical treatment of the nobility bereft of money, morals, and stamina, were so different from the material in Trollope's other books that the result was first shock, and then indifference and weariness."(illustrations: Lionel G. Fawkes)Trollope had intended to focus the novel on Lady Matilda Carbury, his notes show:Living in Welbeck with son and daughter, spoiling the son and helping to pay his debts -- clever and impetuous. Thoroughly unprincipled from want of knowledge of honesty -- an authoress, very handsome, 43 --trying all schemes with editors, etc. to get puffed. Infinitely energetic --bad to her daughter from want of sympathy. Flirts as a matter of taste, but never goes wrong. Capable of great sacrifice for her son. The chief character.The book opens with Lady Carbury dashing off letters to the editors of the London papers with the intention of securing the necessary reviews for her just-published Criminal Queens, a book in which she's spread "all she knew very thin, so that it might cover a vast surface. She had no ambition to write a good book but was painfully anxious to write book that the critics should say was good." Lady Carbury, the narrator tells us, "was false from head to foot, but there was much of good in her, false though she was."Lady Carbury's greatest desire is to marry her handsome son off to an heiress. Sir Felix Carbury at 25 has already run through all the money left him by his late father and has no compunction against demanding and wasting the little that his mother and sister have to live on keeping horses in the country and gambling at the Beargarden, the club where all the young wastrels spend their time passing IOUs back and forth (living within one's means is not the way anyone lives now). Mother and son set their sights on Miss Marie Melmotte, only daughter of financier Augustus Melmotte, recently established in London and growing in prominence among the upper-crust despite a cloud of rumors.It was at any rate an established fact that Mr Melmotte had made his wealth in France. He no doubt had had enormous dealing in other countries, as to which stories were told which must surely have been exaggerated. It was said that he had made a railway across Russia, that he provisioned the Southern army in the American civil war, that he had supplied Austria with arms, and had at one time bought up all the iron in England. He could make or mar any company by buying or selling stock, and could make money dear or cheap as he pleased. All this was said of him in his praise, -- but it was also said that he was regarded in Paris as the most gigantic swindler that had ever lived; that he had made that city too h[...]
2015-03-25T12:59:28.759-04:00Ye gods, is there anything worse than a reading slump?
2015-03-08T12:00:28.904-04:00Inspiration up and left you? Writer's block getting you down? Burnout aggrieving your soul? Singer/songwriter Radney Foster's been there and put it to song.
2015-01-16T13:18:15.445-05:00"She can't do that, can she?" I asked myself when I reached the last page of Barbara Comyns' 1959 novel The Vet's Daughter. "She can't have a first person past tense narration and then kill off the narrator on the last page! I mean, obviously, she can, but isn't it stooping kind of low?"Then I looked back a few pages, spotted a one-sentence flashforward whose significance I'd failed to note previously, and all was forgiven. I love dead narrators. Alice Rowland has been playing this card--that she's talking to us from beyond the grave--close to the vest.Many things are played close to the vest in The Vet's Daughter, leaving the reader at the end not quite sure how we're supposed to interpret certain events, or even certain characters. For example, the novel opens with a description of a "man with small eyes and a ginger moustache" who walks along the street with Alice while she "was thinking of something else. . . . He told me his wife belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and I said I was sorry because that is what he seemed to need me to say and I saw he was a poor broken-down sort of creature. If he had been a horse, he would have most likely worn knee-caps." This man is not seen or mentioned again until the final pages of the book. Clearly Comyns intends the ginger man to serve more purpose than arouse Alice's pity--but what? I can't worry it out.But I'm getting ahead of myself. This is the story of Alice Rowland, 17-year-old daughter of an abusive London veterinarian who is more apt to send an unwanted puppy to the vivisectionist for a pound than to put it down humanely as he is supposed to. He's broken Alice's mother's front teeth with a kick in the face, and even worse, her spirit. He mostly ignores Alice since she disappointed him by being born a girl, but she's still frightened of him. Their house is grotesque--dark, smelly, decorated with the rug of a Great Dane's skin and a monkey's jaw, filled with animals in cages that Alice is required to take care of.One night shortly before Alice's mother, who is dying of cancer, is euthanized against her will by Alice's father, Alice listens to her mother reminisce once again of growing up on a farm in the mountains of Wales: "Dark brown moss grew in the mere by the farm; and once I saw a little child floating on the surface. She was dead, but I wasn't afraid because she looked so pure floating there, with her eyes open and her blue pinafore gently moving. It was Flora, a little girl who had been missing for three days. . . "The morning that Alice is told her mother has died, she sees a Jacob's ladder that the sun has made across the floor of her mother's bedroom.After the funeral, Alice's father goes missing for three weeks. He returns with a barmaid --the strumpet from the Trumpet-- Rosa Fisher (a fisher of men?), who he euphemistically tells Alice will be their housekeeper. Rosa quickly assumes an evil stepmother-like role in Alice's life. One afternoon while fixing their lunch in a steamy hot kitchen Alice imagines--or so she thinks at first--that she is floating above water in the mountains. "This wonderful water world didn't last long because a mist came, and gradually it wasn't there, and something was hurting my head. Somehow I'd managed to fall on the kitchen floor, and knocked my head on a coal scuttle. Coal had got in my hair, but otherwise everything was as it had been before I'd seen the water garden--just boiling beef and steam, and heard Rosa's and Father's voices coming through the wall."Alice hasn't realized it, but her mother's reflections and death have inspired her to begin levitating. For most of the book, I was prone to read these instances metaphorically, as they happen after times of great psychological distress for Alice. Yet Comyns has Alice read ghost stories and Alice mentions how happy her mother's ghost must be when she leaves home to be a companion on an island for Henry Peebles' mother (Peebles is a kind man who cares for Al[...]
2014-12-31T15:23:03.331-05:00This year has been all about Claudius.In February we noticed he had a ruptured anal gland. I took him to the vet, who wouldn't even fake concern over this injury; she'd felt a mass near his bladder during his exam. After a quick flurry of tests over the next few days, Claudie was diagnosed with large cell lymphoma, and his vet referred us to an oncologist.In all honesty, I wasn't enthused at the thought of Claudius undergoing chemo. I've charitably called him "the startle puss" on the blog before, but closer to home I refer to him as "the family paranoid schizophrenic." He's had on-and-off liver issues all his life. He's been a terror to medicate. He'll ruin your shirt and try to scratch your innards out, is what I've always told anyone crazy enough to want to pick him up. Wasn't quality of life, not quantity, all that mattered to a cat?Try chemo for a month and see how he does, Claudia, the oncologist, advised.He came out of his muzzle during his first session of chemo and sent two vet techs to the ER. I had to deal with the required-by-law visits from Animal Control and Claudius was sedated before treatment from then on. But he handled the chemo itself well and we never thought about stopping. He didn't quit biting the blood out of me when I gave him his meds until sometime in August. He and I have been through a lot of stressful times this year, but I'd say his quality of life has been much improved.We're all glad he's still around. I think he is, too. He's been sitting beside me on the couch, watching me blog this afternoon. He spent Christmas holidays playing with my daughter's kitten as if he were a kitten himself. (Very strange: remember when he was afraid of Ellie when she was a kitten? He didn't play then, He hid under the couch for 36 days.)I'm sure sitting around waiting for him during his chemo sessions is part of the reason I managed to read 115 books this year--the highest number I've ever read, although I remain more impressed with the 112 I read in 2000 since that list included several lengthy classics. While I counted 12 books as classics this year, the two that were pre-20th century were definitely short.And paying for chemo also helped me further rein in my spending on books, an expenditure that was already on the decline.My reading stats for the last ten years (this year's in bold):Books Total 115 / 74 / 100 / 82 / 101 / 101 / 78 / 81 / 74 / 77Nonfiction 14 /13 / 5 / 12 / 16 / 15 / 13 / 8 / 14 / 13Novels 84 / 57 / 80 / 66 / 78 / 79 / 62 / 62 / 50 / 47Short Story Collections 15 / 3 / 4 / 2 / 7 / 7 / 3 / 4 / 1 / 8Library Books 53 /36 / 29 / 39 /26 / 48 / 27 / 14 / 31Newly Acquired/Read 17 / 14 / 21 / 12 / 23 / 32 / 32 / 31 / 24Newly Acquired/Stockpiled 26 / 58 / 78 / 120+ / 113 / 140 / 88 / 141+ / 75+E-texts Read 11 / 12 / 20 / 12 / 17 / 10 / 12Free E-texts Read 3 / 4 / 10 / 6 / 9 / 5 / 7Just-published books 35 / 35 / 30 / 21 / 36 / 55 / 41 / 34 / 33Classics 12 / 7 / 22 / 23 / 21 / 10 / 8 / 23 / 12Pre-20th Century 2 /1 / 8 / 10 / 9 / 7 / 4 / 12 / 11Written by women 87 / 49 / 38 / 46 / 55 / 42 / 33 / 28Ten authors with multiple books: Alice Munro (5); Jane Gardam (3); Joan Didion (2); Linda Grant (2); Tessa Hadley (2); David Mitchell (2); Lorrie Moore (2); Anthony Powell (2); Elizabeth Taylor (2); Rebecca West (2).Three rereads: Anagrams by Lorrie Moore; A Lemon and a Star by E.C. Spykman; and Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion.It was a very enjoyable reading year for me, but an unusual one in that I feel more favorably disposed to authors than to particular books. I don't know if it's a sign of my age, that I'm not finishing nearly as many books thinking that I'd like to read them again some day, but without that feeling, I don't regard that book as a favorite, no matter its quality.What did I finish in 2014 that I can imagine rereading? Jane Gardam's Old Filth and its sequels? David Mitchell's Th[...]
2014-11-20T17:33:55.170-05:00Books, you know, they're not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art--the art of words.
2014-10-18T21:30:20.509-04:00I convinced my husband to take me on a reading vacation way back in the mountains the first weekend in October; unfortunately it was right before the leaves began to change and there was enough rain that most of the reading had to take place indoors instead of under the 400-year-old trees in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest as I'd planned.I read Tana French's latest and L. read Lorrie Moore short stories.Perhaps I can get him to read a couple more today so that he can say he participated in the readathon.I am quite blown away realizing that Dewey's 24-Hour Readathon, which started most humbly back in fall of fall of 2007 with just 37 participants, has 959 people signed up as of 7:23 am today.Back in 2007, I began the very first readathon by reading Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw." Today I am starting things off with Caroline Gordon's The Women on the Porch. Gordon is an author I've been meaning to read for years and one I included in the last readathon I participated in, although I had so many books in my stack of possibilities that year that I never got around to her volume of collected stories.I intend to do updates here, but not frequent ones. I haven't signed up for cheerleaders, so there really isn't a need. And now I'm off to make some tea and give my cat his meds before the reading commences. It's taken six and a half hours, but I've finished my first book, Caroline Gordon's The Women on the Porch. Published in 1944 and regarded as one of her best, it is exceedingly Southern. There are no dead mules in it, but let me just be cagey for a moment and say if there had been, Gordon's capacity for creatively killing them would rank up there with Truman Capote's. I will give away no more than that. But if you can tolerate casual racism and homophobia in your Southern lit along with its peacocks and Tennessee Walkers and moonlight trysts between cousins, do give her a try sometime. Her civil war novel, None Shall Look Back, is said by some to be a better novel than Gone With the Wind.As for me, I've had enough Southern lit for the day and I'm turning by attention across the pond: hello, Hilary Mantel and The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.2nd UpdateA belated midway report here, since I've been sidetracked by dinner and the "Am I being catfished?" article at the Guardian. . .I have now completed my second book of the readathon, Hilary Mantel's The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. I've now read a total of 558 pages since 8 this morning.I really don't have a clue what I'm in the mood for next, so I think I'm going to pull books from the shelves and read first sentences until something grabs me.[...]
2014-10-01T14:43:19.704-04:00by Wendy Although the book is full of truths both timely and necessary, You Are Not Special . . . and Other Encouragements by David McCullough, Jr. violates one cardinal rule for writers: know your audience. An expansion of his 12-minute high school commencement speech (view it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lfxYhtf8o4), McCullough’s book, as stated in the foreword, “[is] for teenagers and anyone with an interest in them.” Aside from eating fast food and sleeping in, I can’t think of too many things that appeal to both teens and adults, much less reading the same book—even if it is a guide to living a life of engagement and experience in a society that only recognizes accolades and achievements.The author addresses the reader as “you.” Early on, sentences like “You watch television, flip through magazines, explore the web, hear what your parents and siblings and aunts and uncles and grandparents and teachers and coaches have to say” make it clear he is talking exclusively to teens. And I understand why: it feels more personal, and it is fitting in a book that is an extension of McCullough’s speech to his audience of young graduates at Wellesley High School, his audience that he addressed as “you.”But his diction tells us otherwise. Using words like ovine, vituperative, and lissome, which are hardly in the hip pockets of the post-Millennials’ lexicon, makes this otherwise instructive and worthwhile work a stumbling block to his intended readers. In addition, McCullough uses long- ago cultural figures (i.e., Wolfman Jack), politicians (i.e., Herman Mann), literature (“Richard Cory”), and other references and allusions familiar only to some middle-aged and older adults and, most especially, to English teachers. Which of course, McCullough is. But his intended audience is not. (Although hats off to McCullough as a teacher if his students have as rich a vocabulary and knowledge of literature necessary to fully understand this book.)Anyway, I’m not advocating that the book be dumbed down. With the decline of reading and comprehension, writers and educators need to work together to increase not decrease reading levels. I am all for elevating our collective intellect; however, the book could have easily been divided into three sections: one for teens, one for parents, and one for educators and those who have the power/influence to improve/reform standardized education. McCullough could still have used “you,” but tailored each section to his intended audience, using appropriate words and references. After all, it’s the message that matters. And McCullough does have many good messages. He writes on the hazards of overprotective parenting, the need for teens to know who they are and to choose friends wisely, the joy of learning, and the slippery slope of ” [confusing] net worth with self-worth” among other topics. For example, he writes:· On parenting – “Any intercession, even the feathery light, can come at a cost to the child’s emerging sense of autonomy and the myriad benefits of fending for himself or herself.”· On teaching – “[A teacher’s] job is to help [his or her] students recognize and value what’s best in themselves, then to learn to build on it.”· On living – “Love everything.”So if you’re a teenager, watch the speech on YouTube. If you’re a parent, educator, education administrator or politician, read the book. McCullough, drawing on his years of teaching and parenting, has a lot to say that is worth not only reading, but putting into practice and sharing with those positioned to enact change in our schools, our communities, an[...]
2014-08-04T15:38:28.975-04:00By Wendy The Circle is a satire by Dave Eggers that describes how a private Internet company morphs into a totalitarianism monopoly in the United States. Unfortunately, Eggers chose to serve his point, rather than the story, so this novel is not his best work. (If it’s your first encounter with Eggers, give him another chance with his earlier books.) However, for all of its literary missteps, The Circle is worth reading, for its point is relevant and worthy of consideration and conversation.The novel tracks the rapid rise of Mae, a bland twenty-something woman, from entry-level Circle employee to a person of power and celebrity via her willingness to first broadcast her life in real time and then share her idea of how to “perfect” democracy with those able to implement it. Unfortunately, what makes Mae a great candidate to promote the vision of the Circle and its founders (i.e., a vapid cheerleader who is all-in for everything the Circle does, including surgically inserting a chip into a child’s bone in order to track his or her whereabouts, therefore, preventing abductions) makes also for a rather vapid character. She comes across as a rather naïve, lusty, and not terribly intelligent 16-year-old, especially in her romantic relationships. She’s quick to trust, quick to disrobe, and quick to forgive when her nerdy love interest films his climax on his phone and publicly analyzes her suitability as his mate during a corporate presentation of LuvLuv, the company’s dating site creation. Her other love interest is a mystery man, whom, despite not even knowing his last name, she not only trusts but thinks is a savant. She also comes across as part Valley Girl, speaking in superlatives (things are “astounding,” “like heaven”) and part pathetic high school wannabe, so desperate to be “in” that she puts up with a prank and insults at the hand of her so-called bestie, Annie, a bigwig in the Circle. Completing this characterization of Mae is the additional insult of adding stereotypical traits, such as overreacting (she says her friend Annie has gone “haywire” for volunteering for a program that will digitally track, record, and make available to all one’s genealogy—although it was perfectly rational for Mae to become “transparent,” wearing a camera nearly 24/7 for the amusement of her followers) and buying shoes (twice a month, really?).Yet this is the woman in whom Annie, the mystery man, and Mae’s former boyfriend, an outlier opposed to everything Mae and the Circle represent, confide in. And this drone is the one who comes up with the grand ideas for the Circle at the close of the book. Just as Mae’s character and the implausible trust others put in her conveniently serves the plot, there are some events that don’t ring true in order to do the same. For example, although Mae doesn’t remove her camera while it records yet another Francis climax, her followers never comment. And, Stenton, one of the founders or Three Wise Men as they are called, who justifies the broadcasting of everyone’s private events, including death, inexplicably cuts the video feed of an arrest of a fugitive “in the interest of allowing her some dignity.” I think, too, some logic is missing with the Circle’s concept that transparency via the placement of cameras everywhere—on people, on location—will eradicate crime, for isn’t it true that some criminals commit crimes for the publicity? And would imbedding tracking chips in children’s bodies really keep them safe from sick, sick people? (Consider the true story of the thief who couldn’t wait long enough for his victim [...]
2014-07-14T12:22:32.277-04:00by Wendy As most of the poems in Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems were previously published in other collections, which have already been reviewed by others, I will limit the focus of this review to Billy Collins’ fifty-one new poems. I respect Mr. Collins, integrated his poems in college literature classes I taught, and recently enjoyed listening to a 2002 recording of his guest appearance on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” Listening to his poems (all poems are meant to be read aloud to fully appreciate them) is really the way to go with Collins, and I think I would have enjoyed this book far more if I had listened to it, rather than reading it. If you’re unfamiliar with Collins, treat yourself to a few minutes of listening to him read his poetry by searching YouTube or watching his “Everyday Moments, Caught in Time” at http://www.ted.com/talks/billy_collins_everyday_moments_caught_in_time#Collins’ new poems are likeable. But most are rather light, like snacks: a pleasure to eat at the time, but not terribly filling. Where the poet shines is in his humorous poems that go beyond just the wit or the laugh to say something broader and deeper. My favorite (and one he reads on the TED Talk) is “To My Favorite 17-Year-Old High School Girl.” Here he compares a typical American teen to Judy Garland, Joan of Arc, Franz Schubert, and others who were quite accomplished at a relatively young age. Collins ends the poem as follows:Frankly, who cares if Annie Oakley was a crack shot at 15or if Maria Callas debuted as Tosca at 17?We think you are special by just being you,playing with your food and staring into space.By the way, I lied about Schubert doing the dishes,but that doesn’t mean he never helped out around the house.The poem is funny on the surface, but I believe that Collins was after something deeper: the disconnect between the standards, abilities, and expectations of the youth of the past and the Millennials of today. Collins is an observant guy, as most poets and writers are, and turns his observations of waiters, Cheerios, eating apples, and other mundane things into poems. Some poems, though, seem like he took his notes of something he observed and merely broke them into stanzas, as opposed to using a poet’s tools to craft a poem that succeeds on many levels. Read “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke to see a poem that could not be anything but a poem. Turning it into prose deflates it, while turning some of Collins’ poems into prose really doesn’t change them.Here is the opening stanza to Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”:The whiskey on your breath Could make a small boy dizzy; But I hung on like death: Such waltzing was not easy. And here it is written as prose: “The whiskey on your breath could make a small boy dizzy; but I hung on like death: such waltzing was not easy.”Here is the opening stanza to Collins’ “Dining Alone”: I would rather eat at the bar,but such behavior is regarded by professionals as a form of denial,so here I am seated aloneat a table with a white tableclothattended by an elderly waiter with no name—ideal conditions for dining aloneaccording to the connoisseurs of this minor talent.And here it is written as prose: “I would rather eat at the bar, but such behavior is regarded by professionals as a form of denial, so here I am seated alone at a table with a white tableclothattended by an elderly waiter with no name—ideal conditions for dining alone according to the connoisseurs of this minor talent.”It’s not just that the former poem rhymes and the latter doesn’t (for poems don’t have to rhyme, of course), it’s that there are so many elements—the rhyt[...]
2014-06-18T11:16:22.804-04:00When things turn out as you expect more often than not, do you feel more in control of your destiny? Do you take more responsibility for your life? If that's the case. why do Americans always behave as if they're victims?Hear me on this for a moment. I wake up every morning not knowing whether I'll be able to switch on the lights. When my toilet broke down last year, I had to set up three appointments with three plumbers because the first two didn't show and the third appeared four hours late. Rarely can I walk the same path from point A to point B, say from apartment to supermarket, for more than a month. I constantly have to adjust my walking maps; any of a multitude of minor politicians will block off entire neighborhoods because one day they decide they're important enough to feel threatened. Life in Beiruit is much too random. I can't force myself to believe I'm in charge of much of my life..Does reliability reinforce your illusion of control? If so, I wonder if in developed countries (I won't use the hateful term civilized), the treacherous, illusion-crushing process of aging is more difficult to bear.~~~~~~~~~If this were a novel, you would be able to figure out why my mother screamed. Alain Robbe-Grillet once wrote that the worse thing to happen to the novel was the arrival of psychology. You can assume he meant that now we all expect to understand the motivation behind each character's actions, as if that's possible, as if life works that way. I've read so many recent novels, particularly those published in the Anglo world, that are dull and trite because I'm always supposed to infer causality. For example, the reason a protagonist can't experience love is that she was physically abused, or the hero constantly searches for validation because his father paid little attention to him as a child. This, of course, ignores the fact that many others have experienced the same things but do not behave in the same manner, though that's a minor point compared to the real loss in fulfilling the desire for explanation: the loss of mystery.Causation extraction makes Jack a dull reader.~~~~~~~~~~~We all try to explain away the Holocaust, Abu Ghraib, or the Sabra Massacre by denying that we could ever do anything so horrible. The committers of those crimes are evil, other, bad apples; something in the German or American psyche makes their people susceptible to following orders, drinking the grape Kool-Aid, killing indiscriminately. You believe that you're the one person who wouldn't have delivered the electric shocks in the Milgram experiment because those who did must have been emotionally abused by their parents, or had domineering fathers, or were dumped by their spouses. Anything that makes them different from you.When I read a book, I try my best, not always successfully, to let the wall crumble just a bit, the barricade that separates me from the book. I try to be involved.I am Raskolnikov. I am K. I am Humbert and Lolita.I am you.~~~~~~I like men and women who don't fit well in the dominant culture, or, as Alvaro de Campos calls them, strangers in this place as in every other, accidental in life as in the soul. I like outsiders, phantoms wandering the cobwebbed halls of the doomed castle where life must be lived.David Grossman may love Israel, but he wanders its cobwebbed halls, just as his namesake Vasily wandered Russia's. To write is to know that you are not home.I stopped loving Odysseus as soon as he landed back in Ithaca.--Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman[...]
2014-06-11T10:54:22.312-04:00Katherine Faw Morris allowed last Friday in a Buzzfeed article that she can go home again, to Wilkes County, but only out of guilt, at Christmas, and that it causes her to suffer anxiety attacks and to black out in Mexican restaurants, either in her hometown or back in New York once she's made it safely back to LaGuardia.Plus her apartment in New York is in bad shape and we are supposed to infer that growing up in Wilkes County is to blame for her don't-give-a-shit throw-bleach-at-it attitude.Joan Didion covered these issues back in the 60s, but I guess you can't fault Morris for mainlining her like black tar heroin and reassembling her ideas now as a means of marketing Young God.People in my hometown are very offended by the Buzzfeed article, however. The subtitle, which of course she didn't write, doesn't set well with them since she didn't grow up in an impoverished home; she and her friends went slumming way out in the sticks to score drugs.Today Pietros Maneos has a rebuttal in the Huffington Post designed to make the locals happy (early verdict:: He's classy! He writes in complete sentences!) as well as to send some business to his vineyards and promote his own novella (you couldn't pay me to read Maneos for less than a million dollars and even then I bet you I'd skim).I'm having a grand old time trying to keep up with it all: My mother-in-law who quit reading the book after two pages (I warned her before I ordered it that it wasn't going to suit her tastes). The classmates who feel she's skewing what the people of the county are really like. The enthusiastic reviewers and the ones who hate it because it's so dark.So, just a few quibbles. Because Wilkes still hasn't produced enough writers for me to just say eh, and go about my business.Morris's opinions on our hometown are her own and she can espouse them all she wants, as far as I'm concerned. I left and I'm glad I did. I'm recommending that my teenage niece get out just as soon as she can. Nevertheless, I don't hold everyone who still lives there in contempt and I don't know that she needed to go as far as she did to sell the book. I know people Morris's age back in Wilkes who don't talk like her friends, who don't use drugs, who make a total mockery of her portrayal of them.That is not to say there are not people like Morris's friends there.I'll just clarify a few factual matters from the Buzzfeed piece. It's the former reporter in me.Wilkes County is not a three-hour drive from "the airport." It may suit her narrative to make it seem that way, more backwoods, but anyone else would take a flight from New York to Charlotte or Greensboro and then have a 90-minute drive to Wilkesboro. Maybe she wanted to be assaulted by the smell of the paper mills outside Asheville before she smelled the chicken litter? It's not spread around as fertilizer in December, anyway.Tom Wolfe ate with Junior Johnson and his fiance Flossie Clark "at one of the new fine restaurants in North Wilkesboro, a place of suburban plate-glass elegance." They were seated at the very best table, according to Wolfe. What I find hard to imagine is that he had to stay at the Lowes Motel; maybe it was a nicer place back then.Every county in the state except for eight out of the one hundred can be called "a county of murderers." Wilkes County's violent crime rate seems to be somewhere in the middle.Morris's personal stuff is her personal stuff. It's hard to believe that she doesn't know if her best friend from high school has internet when she knows the current contents of her medicine cabinet, but she's marketing her book and she's doing what she needs to do to sell it; maybe her friend knows all about this story and[...]
2014-06-09T08:05:22.915-04:00I am making it a priority to read-- and blog about (there's the rub)-- the Wilkes County component of my Some Dark Holler project this summer.First up, because it's already generating so much buzz back in Wilkes that my mother-in-law asked me to buy her a copy, is Katherine Faw Morris's just-published Young God.Typically, Young God would have found publication as "Young God." It's not quite 80 pages worth of words spread out over a little less than 200. It would have been the long story/novella in a collection that I could imagine easily evolving into a kind of Mary Gaitskill-ish Bad Behavior of the Appalachian foothills.But take a crack literary agent from North Carolina whose business card Morris managed to secure during her MFA days at Columbia and a writer/husband team team who--pre-book deal--thought to set up a website for Morris that consisted of just an image of a morphine pill on her tongue and you can see why a less conventional approach to publication might have cramped the style of the whole thing: the showcasing of the contemporary druggy underbelly of the former moonshine capital of the world by a stylish, hip young Brooklynite who takes care to control her image and describes said image as "trashy Russian mistress."I have to admit it's been a genius marketing campaign so far.The story itself is this:Nikki Hawkins' mother, presumably while high on Roxies, falls from the wrong side of a waterfall she intended to dive from and dies. (I have no idea why some reviewers are saying she commits suicide; she's laughing and in mid-conversation with her boyfriend when she falls.) The boyfriend grabs 13-year-old Nikki and his bookbag full of pills down at the swimming hole below and they hightail it to his camper, where, mere sentences later, Nikki initiates sex. Sleeping with Mamma's boyfriend doesn't secure Nikki first-place status when a new redneck girlfriend shows up on the next page, so Nikki steals Wesley's car and his pills and takes off to her daddy's trailer.Her daddy is Coy Hawkins, the county's top coke dealer, now out of prison after turning rat--his sister Crystal's still doing time. To Nikki's chagrin, Coy Hawkins has quit dealing drugs altogether and is now pimping out Angel, a 15-year-old Nikki used to know at the group home in town. Since Nikki doesn't want to go back to the group home and she also wants to figure out a way of getting money that she believes Coy Hawkins has buried back on the deer run behind the trailer, she knows some adjustments must be made if she is to remain with him.So Nikki adjusts. Nikki is willing to lure a virgin away from the group home so that Coy Hawkins can make the big bucks off of her (It's even her idea). Nikki uses drugs, participates in armed robbery, and helps dispose of a murder victim's body. Then, when she sees that Coy Hawkins is becoming too strung out and paranoid to handle matters, she takes over the resumed drug trade, one now based on black tar heroin.It's minimal and sometimes elliptical, and as you can imagine, as dark as a dark holler is likely to get. Supremely effective as a story, but it's hard not to feel that the reader's been some con artist's mark when it's marketed and sold as a novel: Karen Russell's 110-page novella Sleep Donation is only $3.99 as a Kindle single. Or maybe I'm just super sensitive since it's set in Wilkes and there are so few that are: give me more! (Morris has said her next novel's set in New York.) We're left with a sense that Nikki has mourned her lost childhood, although we've really had only one brief image of a moment that hasn't been brutal or depraved, and that she feels capable of seizing the future. I [...]
2014-03-31T18:25:22.268-04:00by Wendy If you think of poetry as relegated to either Valentine’s Day greeting cards or to literature class textbooks understandable only to literature professors, then you haven’t read a Bridgeman poem. The Odd Testament is Randolph Bridgeman’s third collection of poetry, and here he continues to deliver poems that are neither sappy nor inaccessible. Bridgeman’s poems are for and about the everyman—around us and in us, whether we acknowledge that everyman or not. He writes of the people from whom we turn away, superior in the knowledge that we are not like them: the child with OCD, the homeless man living in McDonald’s, the depressed man shooting his ex-lover’s Beanie Babies. And he writes of the people we sometimes become and probably don’t admit to being: the spectator watching one dog hump another, the teen driven to amoral behavior by lust, the person who loses everything “because this was just one more/thing in a long list of stupid shit/that he’d done.” Bridgeman’s portrayal of the characters in his poems is frank, and as stripped of pretension as his language. His poems aren’t lengthy; he uses simple, often profane, language; and he limits capitalization and punctuation. Actually, Bridgeman sums up a lot of his own poetry in his poem “poetry readings,” where the narrator states:i want to hear poetry that comesshooting out of you like the beer shitsi could give a rat’s ass about thegood ole boys in letterman sweatersi want to hear about that boy you draggedhome from a single-parent homein government subsidized housingon the other side of townEven the poems that are based on the Bible have that unique Bridgeman everyman bent. For example, in the poem “the odd testament,” he takes the stories of Adam, Abraham, Jonah, and Lazarus and gives us a decidedly mortal spin, comparing God to a single parent:god was the first single parent butcertainly not the last to be out therebustin’ ass to keep the lights and water onand giving us the innermost thoughts of a surprised and pissed Lazarus who finds himself resurrected “after he’d confessed to/family he’d wronged/been forgiven his debts.” The treatment of the stories of Abraham and Jonah broaches the topic of the divide between father and son that surfaces in later poems such as “a brief conversation with my father about classic greek literature” that ends with “i can’t have an intelligent/conversation with you about/anything he says slamming/the door on his way out.”Even though Bridgeman’s approach is one of simplicity, most of his poems demonstrate the poet’s command of language. For example, in “lessons,” Bridgeman compares a son who bucks his father’s mold to “that stripped screw he couldn’t back out/that bent nail that cracked his wood/that rounded nut he couldn’t tighten,” and describes the heat of a summer night as “summer’s air slides down/like a tight skirt” in “in the woods.” Not every poem is equally strong. A few are more clever than insightful, proselytize, merely eavesdrop, or simply report on some of the more grotesque attributes of people. Some poems in the collection are tender, some are funny, some are un-PC, most invite us in and let us know that we are all Adams and Eves in our own way, but damn it, someone loves us anyway. A good many are written in first person. Whether they are confessional only the poet knows, but it doesn’t really matter, for one man’s confession may very well be our own. Which, I think, is the point.[...]
2014-03-20T12:49:24.364-04:00Reading for fun is not really an economic activity. When you sit down with a book, you are not producing anything or buying or selling anything. You aren’t performing a service for anyone other than yourself. You aren’t hiring, supervising, soliciting bids or trading securities. You aren’t harvesting or polishing or packing or drafting or breaking ground or any of the other things people do when they’re participating in economic life. And that’s part of what makes reading so beautiful.
2014-02-26T16:49:21.641-05:00North Carolina has been such a bubbling lava bed of crazy lately, it's been easy to miss some of the individual bubbles.
2014-02-23T21:02:47.305-05:00by WendyThere’s a lot to like about Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. For one, its structure is simple. The book is broken into three sections: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, with each section comprised of short (usually one to two pages) musings on writing, the writing life, and strands of autobiography/memoir. Each piece is titled, which makes it easy for readers to put the book down and pick it up several days later, or to simply bounce around from one section or essay to another, without losing the feel and flow. Like most other books on writing, Shapiro covers the positive influence that reading has on writing, the need to develop and stick to a practice or habit of daily writing, and dealing with procrastination, our inner censors, and writer’s block. Although none of these topics is unique, they are so integral to writing that they bear repeating.It’s also nice to hear a familiar refrain recast in new language. For sometimes it’s not the message that we’re missing, but the way the message is framed that doesn’t resonate. Writers certainly know the importance of diligence, but diligence is tedious. Shapiro’s take on diligence? “I sit down every day at around the same time and put myself in the path of inspiration . . .” If we don’t show up, we miss the inspiration, right? Isn’t this more dynamic and beckoning than reading that we need to write X number of words per day, or sit for X number of hours? She also shares helpful tips, such as how she overcomes the enormity of writing something BIG by starting with something small--just one word, just one sentence, just one detail. Or using the five senses to inhabit a character, asking: At any given moment, what is she wearing? Feeling? Hearing? Seeing? Shapiro is most successful when she invites us in as her equal, and says you and I are not really that different. It’s reassuring to know that a professional writer describes a typical day much like any other writer would, as a combination of productivity and well, inertia and distractions. For example, Shapiro writes of days where she will “sit, then stand, sit again, decide that I needed more coffee, go downstairs and make the coffee, come back up, sit again, get up, comb my hair, sit again, stare at the screen, check e-mail, stand up, pet the dog, sit again. . . .” Unfortunately, Shapiro fails at maintaining this sense of community three times in the book. One, in the final section of the book she states: “If beginnings are leaps of faith, and middles are vexing, absorbing, full of trap doors and wrong turns and dead ends, sensing an ending is your reward. It’s better than selling your book.” Really? I think that statement falls in the category of “easy for you to say.” I’m sure there are many unpublished writers who would feel plenty rewarded by a sale! Two, in “Risk,” she talks about the financial risk of living a life of a writer, but then goes on to relate her trip to Paris to celebrate how well her first memoir was doing on the best seller list. Again, really? I can see celebrating with a fancy meal out, but how much of a risky life are you living when you can celebrate success by going to Paris? Finally, in “Smith Corona,” she paints a portrait of her mother, a failed writer, who wrote regularly—she had her practice, her habit. So why was she a failure? Although Shapiro points out that her mother didn’t finish anything, she also mentions that her mother sent out scripts. Weren’t they finished? I think a cri[...]
2014-02-01T12:29:00.461-05:00There will be, if I’m spared, a companion novel called 'God in Ruins' (a wonderful quote from Emerson--'Man is a god in ruins') in which I can explore more fully those characters who get rather short-changed in Life After Life. Ostensibly it will be Teddy's story but I think it might spread its net far and wide.
2014-01-16T21:02:57.839-05:00by WendyWhen poet Lucille Clifton taught at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, I took several of her classes. As my fellow students and I sat around a conference table to critique each other’s poetry, Clifton would direct us to first state what we loved about the poems. After finishing The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt’s novel about Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old boy whose life takes a tragic, criminal trajectory after surviving an explosion in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which results in the death of his beloved mother and his theft of a masterpiece, I asked myself: What do I love about this novel? Well, anything that brings attention to art is certainly something to love, right? And Tartt does so by making Carel Fabritius’ painting “The Goldfinch” the hub of her story. That she was successful in attracting attention to his piece is evidenced by headlines like “’The Goldfinch painting drawing big crowds since Donna Tartt book release” on CBS.com and elsewhere. (Note: “The Goldfinch” is on display at The Frick Collection in New York until January 19.) She certainly writes well, giving us vivid characters and settings and a plot that keeps us turning pages. And in this day and age of sound bite attention spans and vapid voyeurism, what’s not to love about a book, any book, that’s receiving good reviews, selling well, and attracting readers?Except I did feel like a voyeur. You know, not in a loose sense, but in that Merriam-Webster dictionary definition sense of “seeking the sordid or scandalous.” Reading The Goldfinch left me feeling like I had just watched a reality TV show and wondering, as Peggy Lee famously sang, “Is that all there is?” I didn’t know anything about Tartt prior to reading this book, but had I known, I would have expected characters who not only live in the moment, but who live narcissistic lives of indulgence (drugs, alcohol, greed); who lack moral centers (deceit, theft, forgery, murder); and who, ultimately, do not redeem themselves. Now I’m not a prude, nor do I think that all novels should be a story of good vs. evil, where good always wins, but we live in a world where not only can we watch such tales unfold on the Internet and in reality TV programs, but also in our very neighborhoods--so I guess I’m feeling saturated. I’d rather see a talent like Tartt give us a respite from this seemingly nightmarish world by providing hope for mankind in the halls of literature.Okay, I’m off my soapbox! On to some elements that rang hollow: One, the point-of-view is first person in the form of Theo Decker at age twenty-seven, recounting in great detail the previous fourteen years. However, he sounds considerably older, for he has an impressive vocabulary, using words such as “cicatriced;” references people such as Carole Lombard, Dick Powell, and Bela Lugosi; and is comfortably knowledgeable about art. Not that men in their twenties can’t have impressive vocabularies and be knowledgeable of 1930s film stars and art, but Theo neither receives a stellar secondary education nor a degree in art and spends most of the book stoned or drunk. Is Tartt telling us that doctors and scientists are wrong, that drugs don’t kill brain cells? The novel’s voice is more in line with the character of Andy, Theo’s nerdy friend, with whom he lives until being sent to live with his father, an alcoholic gambler, and girlfriend in Las Vegas. Yes, Theo spends time grieving and watching Turner Classic Movies, yes h[...]
2013-12-31T11:00:18.474-05:00I can't say I'm sorry to see the end of 2013. There were lots of health issues affecting various members in both our families this year and it was near impossible to keep the stress created by all this at bay. I'm hoping for a calmer, healthier 2014 for all of us.
2013-12-16T21:45:31.607-05:00'Do you believe in the virtue of compression?' asked a determined academic lady.