Ian McEwan, Atonement
Ian McEwan's magnificent Atonement has been reviewed, analyzed and discussed to such an extent that I'm not sure how much I can add to the proceedings, other than to express my great admiration for the book and considerable awe for McEwan's accomplishment.
There's just so much here that I enjoy: a small story told thoroughly and in meticulous detail, the realistic and sympathetic characters, the poignant plight of the fading English gentry on the brink of World War II. And the writer in me truly admires the book's structure: the layered, overlapping narratives of the first section, which show how different characters view the same series of events and subtly suggest that truth isn't concrete but instead a matter of perception; the bluntly harrowing, riveting plot of the second section, as Robbie retreats along a narrow, exposed road in northern France toward the English Channel with the rest of Britain's troops and assorted civilian refugees; and the only slightly less harrowing third section which describes Briony's experience as a nurse trainee in London just before the Blitz. But what is particularly marvelous is the brief final section which puts all of the prior narrative into context even as it questions truth versus fiction as well as an author's responsibility to a book's characters; the final section is a twist that I never saw coming, one which completely shifts the meaning of the previous 325 pages. A masterful trick, but also an honest and effective one which presents McEwan, one of our very best novelists, at the height of his writerly powers.
What my wife has been reading...
Julie thoroughly enjoyed Sam Savage's Firmin (picked up on my suggestion, even though I've yet to read it) but was completely blown away by Cormac McCarthy's The Road. I just finished reading Atonement (more on this great book soon) and will dabble a bit with a few literary journals to cleanse my palette before plunging into McCarthy's post-apocalyptic nightmare. The prospect has me both eager and more than a little frightened.
Edgar Lee Masters
From Today in Literature:
On this day in 1914 the first installment of Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology was published in Marion Reedy's weekly magazine, The Mirror...The book was an instant hit and soon became the best-selling book of American poetry to date...
I've been meaning to read Spoon River, off and on, for the past several years. It seems to be one of those quintessential Midwest literary classics from the region's early 20th Century heyday that I really ought to read. Some others in that same category would include Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt and Main Street (both of which I've read, albeit two decades ago) and Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (which I bought last year but haven't cracked open yet). My wife Julie is intent on reading some of "the classics" this summer -- I'm not sure yet of her exact definition of that term, but for my own purposes I'll be taking it to mean Babbitt, Winesburg and Spoon River. I might even toss some Hamlin Garland in there, too, though I'm not sure he qualifies as classic any longer.
(Link via Coudal.)
Song of the Week: Okkervil River
Now that I'm settling into my new job and getting used to new ways of doing things (both professionally and personally), I'm finally reviving Song of the Week. Next up for your listening pleasure is "The War Criminal Rises and Speaks" by Okkervil River. I've been enjoying this song for several years now, and have been particularly infatuated with it during the past few days. Will Sheff is one of the sharpest songwriters out there, and his earthy and impassioned vocal delivery really brings across his lyrics. The first handful of lines (full lyrics here) are particularly evocative and lovely:
The heart wants to feel, the heart wants to hold.
The heart takes past Subway, past Stop and Shop,
Past Beal’s, and calls it “coming home.”
The heart wants a trail away from “alone,”
So the heart turns a sale into a well-worn milestone
Towards hard-won soft furniture, fought-for fast food,
Defended end table that holds paperbacks and back U.S. News.
The mind turns an itch into a bruise,
And the hands start to twitch when they’re feeling ill-used.
The implication that "alone" is a grim place that it's best to escape always grabs me. The instrumentation on this song -- espeically the piano and drums that accompany Sheff's vocal at the beginning, and the orchestral swell in the middle when the vocals get urgent -- really moves me as well.
Excerpt from Atonement
A vivid passage from Ian McEwan's magnificent Atonement, as Londoners quietly fear a German invasion during the early days of WWII:
The unease was not confined to the hospital. It seemed to rise with the turbulent brown river swollen by the April rains, and in the evenings lay across the blacked-out city like mental dusk which the whole country could sense, a quiet and malign thickening, inseparable from the cool late spring, well concealed within its spreading beneficence. Something was coming to an end. The senior staff, conferring in self-important groups at the corridor intersections, were nursing a secret. Younger doctors were a little taller, their stride more aggressive, and the consultant was distracted on his round, and on one particular morning crossed to the window to gaze out across the river for minutes on end, while behind him the nurses stood to attention by the beds and waited. The elderly porters seemed depressed as they pushed the patients to and from the wards, and seemed to have forgotten their chirpy catchphrases from the wireless comedy shows, and it might have even consoled Briony to hear again that line of theirs she so despised--Cheer up, love, it might never happen.
But it was about to.
Thank you for having a conscience.
H.R. 2206 (U.S. Troop Readiness, Veterans' Care, Katrina Recovery, and Iraq Accountability Appropriations Act, 2007)
NAYs -- 14
Boxer (D-CA), Burr (R-NC), Clinton (D-NY), Coburn (R-OK), Dodd (D-CT), Enzi (R-WY), Feingold (D-WI), Kennedy (D-MA), Kerry (D-MA), Leahy (D-VT), Obama (D-IL), Sanders (I-VT), Whitehouse (D-RI), Wyden (D-OR)
The rest of you Senators should be ashamed of yourselves. I hope for your sake that you're able to eventually wash the blood off your hands.
"Howard Holds Court"
My short story "Howard Holds Court" has just been published in the Birmingham Arts Journal, a very sharp-looking publication of the Birmingham (Alabama) Art Association. The story is available online here (on page 10 of the .pdf file) and also in print. From the website I can't exactly tell how you'd be able to acquire a print copy, if you're so inclined, but I'm sure if you contact them they'd be glad to help you out.
This little story is one of my personal favorites, and I'm glad it finally found a home.
I second this notion, and welcome young T.J. Quinn to the world. He's the first child of my wife's youngest sister Amanda who, until I started working longer hours on my new job and she went on maternity leave, used to be my "train buddy": we sat next to each other on the Chicago-to-Joliet train every night. Try as I might, I couldn't divert her too far from her fondness for James Frey, Nora Roberts and countless pastel-covered chick lit novels, although she did admit to enjoying Slaughterhouse-Five and The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas when I foisted them on her. Or maybe she was just humoring me.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Trevor
A happy 79th to one of my personal favorites. The Story of Lucy Gault remains one of the finest novels I've ever read.
It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer William Trevor, born in Mitchelstown, Ireland (1928). His collections of short stories include The Day We Got Drunk on Cake and Other Stories (1967) and Beyond the Pale (1981); and his novels include Felicia's Journey (1994) and The Story of Lucy Gault (2002).
He once said, "If anyone asks why I write gloomy novels, they need only know that my father came from the South and my mother from the North."
He also said, "All my writing is about noncommunication — which is very sad and very funny."
Actually, I don't find his writing gloomy at all. Gritty and realistic, yes, but no gloomier than everyday life. I always find a ray of hope, if sometimes ever so slight, in his fiction.
(Via Minnesota Public Radio.)
"Waiting On a Train"
I'm quite pleased to announce that my short story "Waiting On a Train" has been published online at RAGAD. The journal, which is nimbly and ably edited by Nick Ostdick, will also be publishing my story "Mercy Day" in an upcoming print edition later this year. Nick, you have my eternal gratitude.
Giveaway - Mid-American Review
My backlog of literary journals has grown to the point that I now realize I'll never read them all. So I've decided to cull my backlog a little and get some of these journals into the hands of readers who might enjoy them. Last year I acquired, as a thank-you for entering a writing contest, the Fall 2006 issue of Mid-American Review, a well-regarded journal published at Bowling Green State University. (You can view this issue's contents here.) I'll give away this pristine copy to the first person to email me (pete_anderson [AT] comcast [DOT] net) with the subject line "Proud to be a Mid-American." If you're the lucky winner, I'll follow up with you for your mailing address. Shipping's on me.
Guess what? Teens still love books.
Rick Kogan ventures out to some local high schools in search of continued love for reading and writing, and is encouraged by what he sees. A terrific and reassuring article, which I strongly suggest you read.
Talk to too many adults, read the papers, listen to the news and you'll get the feeling that kids today are mostly interested in video games and that their writing is exclusively of the text-message type.
But over the last few months, as we have visited all sort of schools, we have been pleased, very pleased, to discover that the written word is still important to fresh faces and young minds.
Personally, I'm not at all buying the literary mainstream's argument that youth readership is down due to kids being distracted by the Internet, text messaging, video games, etc. To me, the establishment's teeth-gnashing sounds an awful lot like one of the big retail chains explaining away their latest disappointing sales report by blaming the weather or high gas prices, instead of admitting that they simply don't really know how to compete in the marketplace and provide a product that people actually want to buy. Put some great books out there, Big Publishers, and people -- even kids -- will buy it. Say what you will about Harry Potter (and I'm not at all a fan), but Rowling's books are well-written, imaginative and fun, which is the reason that adults and kids snap them up by the millions.
While Big Publishers bemoan the loss of a love for reading of our youth, they should instead note the example of Chicago author Joe Meno, an immensely talented writer whose Hairstyles of the Damned is a funny, heartfelt coming-of-age novel that would appeal to most teens, and could have been a blockbuster for one of the conglomerates. But Meno, whose first two novels were published (and generally neglected) by a big publisher, instead published Hairstyles with an indie, Akashic Books, where the book got the loving attention that Meno was looking for. But of course Akashic doesn't have the marketing and distribution muscle of the titans, so while the book was a huge seller in indie terms, with one of the big publishers it could easily have sold millions.
And to cite a more personal example, my wife spends much of her weekdays on the Internet running her two online businesses, and also has plenty of quality time with her Nintendo DS, but still manages to devour that old-fashioned, offline, paper-based art form known as literature. So competing mediums aren't necessarily to blame, either, for the so-called demise of serious reading.
Put great writing out there, Big Publishers, and the readers will flock to your door.
(Tribune site requires registration. Use "firstname.lastname@example.org" for the user name, "tribune" for the password. Thanks, as always, to bugmenot.com.)
Not "Out of Print", just out of mind
At the risk of putting the cart miles before the horse, given the far-from-finished status of all three of my novels, this news item has prompted me to officially strike Simon & Schuster from my list of prospective future publishers. Insidious, indeed.
Traditionally, if a book falls out of print, authors are contractually allowed to ask their publishers for their rights back so that the author can try to have the book republished somewhere else.
Until recently, that has meant that if a book was not available in at least one format — hardback, trade paperback or mass market paperback being the most common — or if sales fell below a minimum annual threshold, it was deemed out of print.
But with the advent of technologies like print-on-demand, publishers have been able to reduce the number of back copies that they keep in warehouses. Simon & Schuster, which until now has required that a book sell a minimum number of copies through print-on-demand technology to be deemed in print, has removed that lower limit in its new contract.
In effect, that means that as long as a consumer can order a book through a print-on-demand vendor, that book is still deemed in print, no matter how few copies it sells.
The Authors Guild says that is not fair. “If a book is only available in print-on-demand, it certainly means the publisher isn’t doing much to promote the book,” said Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild. “We’re not against the technology; we’re just against the technology being used to lock up rights.”
"Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth—more than ruin—more even than death. ... Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habit. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man."
-- Bertrand Russell, who was born on this day in 1872
Tale From the Crypt
Like a zombie arising and staggering to its feet, my novella-in-hiatus Wheatyard, which I've barely touched since late 2005, has suddenly sprung back to life. I finally wrote the final chapter on the flight back from Hilton Head on Saturday, and this morning I finished off another key new passage. Now I need to type up the new sections and add them to the old manuscript before diving in for a very close reading of the entire mess, so I can determine whether or not there's a feasible book in there somewhere.
I'm crossing both my fingers and my toes.
Over and Out
I'm going on blogging hiatus for a little while, as we're spending the rest of this week on a well-deserved vacation at Hilton Head before I start my new job on Monday. I'll be completely offline until Sunday, and after that I really can't foresee being able to blog at work (which has been my most productive blogging locale up until now) for quite some time. So whatever blogging you see here for the next few months will probably be confined to bursts of pent-up posts on the weekends. Bear with me, and enjoy (hopefully) quality over the usual quantity.
"Bringing the Troops Home"
(Note: I wrote this piece several weeks ago, and submitted to the op-ed desk of a leading area newspaper. With no response from them, it's safe to assume they won't be running the piece. Though I would have preferred a much broader audience for this than my humble blog enjoys, I've decided to go ahead and run it here. The thoughts expressed herein are far too important to me to leave them unsaid.)
Bringing the Troops Home
by Peter Anderson
Recently I caught a few moments of a very moving scene on a television news program. A young soldier surprised his equally young son at school, in the middle of the day. The boy ran across the classroom and into his father's arms, his face streaming with tears and his mouth opened wide in an anguished howl. I hoist up my daughter in much the same way when I come home from work every day, but she and I are all quiet smiles, for I have only returned from a comfortable office, an easy train ride and a short drive. The young soldier, in his beige desert camouflage fatigues, had returned from Iraq. The boy's overwrought emotion, which soon turned to smiles and laughter, was clearly shock and then relief at the sight of his father, whom the boy must have believed he might never see again.
And yet, despite the obvious sorrow endured during his father's absence, that young boy was one of the lucky ones. His father came home. The families of more than three thousand American soldiers aren't as fortunate.
For the past several years I have believed that George Bush sees war as mere abstraction, and soldiers as nothing more than pawns, convenient means to a hoped-for but illusory end. Having never fought in a war himself, never feared for his own life or seen his buddies die horrifically before his eyes, never longed for his family on the other side of the world, he lacks the personal experience which might have otherwise dampened his enthusiasm to declare war, and to perpetuate it. He sits comfortably in the Oval Office, or on Air Force One, or on his ranch in Crawford, listening to the suggestions of his senior advisers and the briefings of his generals as he directs the war's continued path, never truly appreciating its human cost. He even refuses to attend military funerals, perhaps wanting to spare himself the sight of the tears and anguish and loss which are the direct result of his policies.
In contrast, veterans like John Kerry or Wesley Clark, while by no means perfect presidential candidates themselves, know what it's like to be a soldier on the ground, with shells exploding overhead and an armed enemy potentially behind every tree or corner. With this remembrance vividly in mind, a veteran would have been very reluctant to put troops in harm's way for a military solution to a political conflict. Before going to war, either Kerry or Clark, or even Colin Powell for that matter, would have wanted incontrovertible proof that Saddam Hussein and Iraq posed a direct threat to the United States. They would have demanded more than a few satellite photographs, a bureaucrat's theoretical projections of Saddam's potential arsenal, an opportunist expatriate's grim assessments, or unsubstantiated rumors of uranium purchases in Niger or meetings with al Qaeda in Prague. They would have demanded overwhelming proof of a threat, and not mere conjecture.
But conjecture will suffice when one's actions are driven by ideology instead of pragmatism, or by abstraction instead of reality. George Bush settled for conjecture, and eagerly and defiantly declared war. The toppling of Saddam was swift and relatively easy, which was hardly surprising given the huge strength disparity between the coalition forces and Saddam's army. But now, due to an inexplicable lack of foresight -- or perhaps willful ignorance -- Bush finds himself and his military in the middle of a civil war between two factions who are fueled by centuries of mutual resentment and hostility, with no clear way out. Bush continues to insist that training new Iraqi security forces -- many of whom are more loyal to those sectarian factions than the artificial construct that is "Iraq" -- and someday turning over control to them will bring peace to Iraq. Yet the violence continues to escalate, despite our military's continued efforts. And with the restoring of order being Bush's stated prerequisite for withdrawing troops, the likelihood of either event occurring seems more remote with each passing day.
It's over, and now is the time for George Bush to admit it. He must now finally concede defeat, admit the limitations of American military power, and acknowledge that not every conflict can be resolved by sending in troops and dropping bombs. Despite the claims of war supporters, talk of withdrawal by no means undermines our troops, nor shows disloyalty to them. Rather, withdrawal is the ultimate show of support for the troops, as it will safely remove them from a conflict which we have little chance of winning, an intractable struggle which the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds of Iraq will ultimately have to resolve on their own.
For consolation, Bush can always point to the success of Saddam being permanently removed from power, and hope that history will forgive him for the ensuing ethnic strife that was subsequently unleashed. At this point, that's probably the best he can expect.
Unfortunately, Bush doesn't appear to agree. In the wake of his 20,000-troop surge to quell violence in Baghdad, which has had only modest success, now comes word that another 13,000 National Guard troops are being shipped overseas to Iraq, and tours of duty are being extended. And that the vice president is still claiming a pre-war link between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. And that the defense secretary insists the withdrawal of troops from Iraq will inevitably result in ethnic cleansing, as if that wasn't already happening despite our ongoing military presence. But rather than face unpleasant reality, George Bush and his administration are digging in their heels, staying the course and perpetuating this unjustified, misguided and fruitless war.
Thinking back to those televised images, I can't help but fear that the young boy's joy will be short-lived, and that his daddy, the soldier, will soon be returning to Iraq. Along with thousands of fathers and mothers just like him.
Copyright©2007 Peter Anderson
Algren and Shay Redux
Art Shay's Nelson Algren's Chicago (now overdue and headed back to my local library) may be out of print and selling for $30 and up online, but have no fear. In June, the esteemed Seven Stories Press is releasing a new Shay collection, Chicago's Nelson Algren which, despite its decidedly unimaginative title, sounds like quite the treasure trove:
Chicago’s Nelson Algren is the compilation of hundreds of photos—many recently discovered and published here for the first time—of Nelson Algren over the course of a decade and a deeply moving homage to the writer and his city. Read Algren and you’ll see Shay’s pictures; look at Shay’s photos and you’ll hear Nelson’s words.
The first book had only 117 photos, so the new one sounds like it's a much more comprehensive overview of Shay's Chicago/Algren work. The photos of the first book were wonderful in their own right, but what made them even better were Shay's explanatory captions which put the photos into delightfully insightful context. I hope the new book incorporates similar captions. I would expect it will, given how much Shay clearly relishes reminiscing about Algren.
Support the Red Cross
My family's hearts go out to the unfortunate people of the Plains states whose lives have been devastated by the weekend's tornadoes, and especially to Greensburg, Kansas, which was all but wiped off the map. As always during disasters like these, the Red Cross is on the scene, providing relief and assistance. I strongly encourage you to donate to the Red Cross to support their laudable efforts.
The New Baby
No, it's not at all what you might think. Instead, the baby is this:
I picked this up last week at a garage sale in Joliet. It's a Mamiya C33 Professional medium-format, circa 1966-69. Other than an aperture ring that won't budge off of f4, it appears to be in perfect working order. (And I can deal with that minor inconvenience -- I'm sure it can be fixed, and it's not like the shutter is stuck on 1/2 a second or anything like that.) The woman I bought it from said it was her husband's, and he inherited it from his uncle (the same "Ed Deeter" who is so wonderfully immortalized on the label which you can see beneath the lower lens) who was a professional photographer of some sort. I love the fact that I know the camera's provenance -- it makes my own ownership seem that much more meaningful, as if I'm maintaining a legacy. The family I bought it from are moving and getting rid of all their unessential items, but even at that the woman said she was surprised her husband gave the camera up. Me too -- it's a beauty. Even if it wasn't operable, it would be quite lovely as a display item. I've long toyed with the idea of collecting vintage cameras, and this one is a nice start. It's also particularly fitting that my two SLR's are Mamiyas, both from the early 1970s.
Oh, and best of all, it only set me back $15.
Prowling garage sales is a lot of work, but sometimes it reaps wonderfully tangible benefits like this one. And intangibly, garage-saling is always nice, too, since it's a family activity that the three of us always enjoy together.
Recently I unearthed a spiral notebook from several years back. It's plastered with literary quotations from a broad range of writers (I was still finding my way as a fledgling writer back then, and apparently I accumulated the quotes as inspiration), the best of which I'll pass along here.
"I write to discover what I know." - Flannery O'Connor
"When I outline, I lose interest, but when I don't know what's happening next, I keep writing to find out." - Adam Langer
"Life shrinks and expands in proportion to one's courage." - Anais Nin
"Novelists do not write as birds sing, by the push of nature. It is part of the job that there should be much routine and some daily stuff on the level of carpentry." - William Golding
"One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important." - Bertrand Russell
"A book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us." - Franz Kafka
"Literature has been the salvation of the damned, literature has inspired and guided lovers, routed despair and perhaps in this case can save the world." - John Cheever
"In the midst of winter I realized there was in me an invincible summer." - Albert Camus
"If there's no money in poetry, neither is there poetry in money." - Robert Graves
"We must for dear life make our own counter-realities." - Henry James
"Trust everybody, but cut the cards." - Finley Peter Dunne
That last one is probably my favorite.
McDermott in Print!
FoPL Steve McDermott, writer and Storyglossia editor (and publisher of my first short story), announces the publication of his story collection Winter of Different Directions, now available at Amazon and Powell's. Steve's a genuinely good guy who's doing great work, both writing and publishing, and is highly deserving of some of your hard-earned book dollars.
After reading reviews of Jim Crace's intriguing new novel The Pesthouse in Bookforum, the NYT and the Chicago Tribune, the book is now officially on my to-read list. Given all the hype surrounding Cormac McCarthy's The Road, it will be interesting to see how much attention Crace's own post-apocalypse dystopian tale enjoys.
Bookforum also passes along an interesting news tidbit (not online) involving Crace. (Apparently he already divulged this last year in the Guardian, but this is the first I've seen of it.) It seems that Amazon UK is selling a purported Crace novel, Useless America, which has not only not been published, but hasn't been written or even conceived of by Crace.
One explanation for the mysterious listing, Crace surmises, is that a few years ago, when he was contracted by Viking (he's since switched publishers) to write his next novel, he knew the first sentence would read "This used to be America," and lent it out as a working title. "Someone at Penguin [Viking's owner] couldn't type, possibly, or someone at Amazon was hard of hearing...'Used to' became 'Useless,' and amusing error...with a life of its own."Both Crace and his publisher, Nan A. Talese, are handling this with poise and humor, collaborating with Powell's on an amusing contest. Entrants are required to submit a "fake epigraph" for this fake book, with the 75 best in terms of "style, originality, and humor" winning a copy of this (very) limited edition volume ("a blank book 'with a beautiful jacket'"). Sounds like fun -- you may submit your entry here. I know I'll be penning something suitably witty, sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek.
Insanity of War
"He would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to."
Happy birthday, Mr. Heller. I wish I could say things have gotten more rational since your departure, but sadly the situation seems to have gotten even worse.
Atoning for Atonement
Now that I've finally started to read Atonement (thus giving my wife one less reason to doubt my literary taste and/or sanity), I can finally pass along this link that I've been sitting on for the last few weeks: the trailer for the film adaptation of McEwan's acclaimed novel. Looks great -- both the film and the book.