Perfect for the drunk writer on your holiday shopping list...
If I had one of these in my home office, I'd quit my job, stay home and write/drink full time.
(Via Boing Boing.)
Will Write For Food
Behold: the literary equivalent of busking. I'm truly sorry we missed this guy when we passed through Asheville last week.
(Sorry, honey, but I can't mow the lawn tomorrow. I'll be downtown at the train station all day, with a stack of manuscripts and a change cup.)
Wheatyard - Unconscious Influences
I just started reading a book that I've owned for more than three years, whose first chapter brought me an oddly pleasant pang of recognition. The book is Plainsong, Kent Haruf's critically acclaimed novel of life in a small Colorado town. Our local Starbucks has a book case which the store encourages customers to permanently take books from, provided that the customers donate a book of their own to the shelf. Sometime in mid-2005, I visited that Starbucks with my family, having brought along another book which I had started, not enjoyed at all and then abandoned, and I figured I'd give that book a chance at finding a more welcoming home than my own. I deposited the book on the shelf and was quite pleased to see Plainsong, which I had been meaning to read for some time. I read the first chapter as we savored our coffee, then I took the book home, shelved it and didn't finally return to it until yesterday.
The first chapter of Plainsong involves a father, two sons and an all-but-invisible mother who live on the outskirts of the small town of Holt. Their house stands directly opposite a set of railroad tracks, on the very sensibly named Railroad Street. When I read this chapter yesterday (for the second time, the first having been at Starbucks in 2005), it suddenly seemed very familiar, and for very good reason.
I started writing Wheatyard in November 2005, several months after reading the first chapter of Plainsong. The eponymous protagonist of Wheatyard just so happens to live - you guessed it - on the outskirts of a small town, directly opposite from the railroad tracks, on Railroad Street. (Albeit childless and unmarried, in Central Illinois and not Colorado.) Although the similarities between Wheatyard and Plainsong end right there, I find it very interesting that these fairly minor elements of Plainsong found their way, unconsciously, into Wheatyard. Until yesterday I had completely forgotten that first chapter, and had absolutely no idea that Haruf's book had at all influenced my writing of Wheatyard. But the influence is definitely there, although to a very small degree.
Other than the name Elmer Glaciers Wheatyard (which my daughter Maddie made up) I have had really no idea where the concept of Wheatyard came from. At the outset, I simply reasoned that anyone with such an odd name had to be quite an eccentric, so I just started with the idea of an eccentric protagonist and improvised from there. Or that was what I presumed to be the extent of influence, until yesterday. Now that I recognize the fact that I borrowed some basic story elements from Plainsong, I realize there is undoubtedly a myriad of similar influences that went into the creation of Wheatyard, most of which I'm still only vaguely aware of. I expect the revelation of other influences in the future will be a similarly rewarding experience.
Recent literary items of note in The Nation:
Benjamin Lytal reviews Knut Hamsun's Hunger, Mysteries, Pan and Growth of the Soil, the four key works translated by Sverre Lyngstad and published by Penguin, "in an ongoing project, including eight novels so far, that gives us a unified English Hamsun for the first time." (Lytal also gives due props to poet Robert Bly's translation of Hunger, saying it's superior to Lyngstad's: "Bly smoothed out Hamsun's tense changes and otherwise erred on the side of fluidity.") The article provides a concise but informative overview of Hamsun's career, including his very unfortunate, late-in-life embrace of Hitler and Nazism, which is the best example I can imagine of the "condemn the writer, not the writing" school of thought. Hamsun is such a fascinating, contradictory and maddening individual that the article also is compelling me to pick up Enigma, Robert Ferguson's biography of the author. Given my love of Hamsun's writing (again, if not the man himself), I'm sure I won't regret doing so.
Actor John Turturro discusses his current role in a staging of Samuel Beckett's Endgame, as well as his appreciation for Beckett in general. I found the disclosure that Turturro's best man read a sex scene from Malone Dies at Turturro's wedding to be particularly amusing.
And apparently my short-term, complimentary Nation subscription has now expired, because I never received their latest, The Spring Books Issue. Oh well. I can only handle The Nation in short doses anyway. I'll be ready again a year from now when, if the pattern of the past few years holds, they'll probably be making me the offer again.
The Amazing Unstoppable Tanzer
Alright, it's official: I'm a slacker. While Wheatyard, the novella I started writing in 2005, remains only partly through its third draft , my good friend Ben Tanzer's second novel, Most Likely, You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine, is not only finished but will be published by Orange Alert Books this August. Orange Alert is the new publishing venture launched by Jason Behrends, the tireless proprietor of the What To Wear During an Orange Alert? blog. Ben was kind enough to let me read the first fifty pages of the manuscript, and it looks like another really good one.
Regarding Wheatyard, I started working on it again during our vacation last week, and I'm now a third of the way through the latest round of revisions.
 Regarding my other two novels-in-progress: Don't ask.
He crossed the four lanes and wide median of Wacker and descended the gentle incline toward Franklin, eyeing as he passed the sleek businessman's restaurant inside which busboys busily set up tables with white cloths and napkins for the coming lunch rush. He remembered back, before the glassy office tower was built, to the parking lot that occupied the site and the old attendant who regularly waved a greeting to Henry from the doorway of the cashier shack. Every now and then Henry would wander over, shake hands and idle away a few minutes in pleasant conversation. Smitty was a good man, Henry reflected, wondering where he was now.
The Island Bookseller
After my mention of Asheville's Malaprop's Books, I would be quite remiss if I failed to also spread the indie love to the other bookstore we visited on our trip, The Island Bookseller on Hilton Head Island. I specifically sought out this store in pursuit of a good book on the Gullah culture of the indigineous African-American population of the Sea Islands off South Carolina and Georgia, which has intrigued me for a while now. Fortunately, this cozy but well-stocked store had an entire case of Lowcountry titles, and I picked up The Water Brought Us: The Story of the Gullah-Speaking People by Muriel Miller Branch. (Interestingly, now that I've looked up the book online, I see that the publisher classifies this as a juvenile title, though my skim of the book in the store didn't give me that impression at all. Well, at least it will be an easy read, plus I can always pass it along to Maddie when I'm done with it.) Nice little store, good service, definitely worth a visit if you're ever in the area.
Our vacation in Hilton Head last week was a car trip, and to break up the long drive we had overnight stays in Asheville, NC. As is our habit whenever we're out of town, we checked out the local independent bookstore, Malaprop's Bookstore. A most excellent store indeed (we walked out with two new books) and, as you can see by the photo above, one with fine taste in new titles. That's Mark Sarvas' debut, Harry, Revised, which I've mentioned here on several occasions. Mark was kind enough to send me an inscribed copy, and I hope to read it during the next few weeks. Stay tuned.
Song of the Week: Vehicle Flips
Vehicle Flips: Honeywell Round Thermostat
With this one, I really don't know where to start - with the song itself, a touching ode to a very common and familiar object that few people ever gave much thought to? with Vehicle Flips, one of my favorite bands of the 1990s, one of those wonderfully obscure little bands that I felt like I owned all to myself? with Object Lessons: Songs About Products, the terrific compilation on which this song first appeared? with Beer Frame, the epic zine which wittily catalogued Paul Lukas' deeply considered obsession with consumer goods? Each aspect is equally deserving of first mention, so I'll do the cowardly thing and select none of them. Over at Little Hits, the blog where I found this mp3, Stewart Mason nicely encapsulates all of the above, so I'll punt and leave the lauding to him.
Vehicle Flips put out three fine albums during the nineties - In Action, The Premise Unraveled (where an alternate version of "Honeywell Round Thermostat" appeared), and For You I Pine - before frontman and lyricist Frank Boscoe drifted elsewhere. Damn, I still miss Vehicle Flips. Beer Frame, too.
More on Lazarus
+ Sara Ivry interviews Hemon at Nextbook.org.
+ An evaluation of the (to me, rather striking) cover design, at Publishers Weekly.
+ Some sort of Lazarus-related video here, at Hemon's site. Haven't watched this yet, but based on the physical beauty of the book itself, I'm sure it's a winner.
That's all for now. For Lazarus, and in general - we're heading off to Hilton Head tomorrow for a week of offline R&R (poolside lounging, beachcombing, Margarita-imbibing, sumptuous eating, copious reading) so don't be worried by the utter lack of activity here.
Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project
Every now and then I come across a book that defies description, one whose beauty and power I can't adequately convey in mere words. James Meek's The People's Act of Love is one such book, and another is Ander Monson's Other Electricities, as is - despite its considerable artistic deficiencies - John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.
And now, also, Aleksandar Hemon's new novel, The Lazarus Project. Not that it can't be described, of course. Many critics and commentators will describe, at length and in depth, the book's narrative, structure and themes, along with the author's background and what his past brought to the telling of the story. Though I'll leave most of that discussion to them, I will still attempt a few words on this great book's behalf.
Through the shadowy and tragic real-life figure of Lazarus Avenbuch and Vladimir Brik, the fictional modern-day writer obsessed with uncovering Lazarus' century-old story, Hemon has crafted a courageous novel, one full of hope and longing and anger and isolation, one which explores the past while being vitally relevant to the present. Hemon's Lazarus does indeed rise - not from the dead like his Biblical namesake, but from the fog of forgotten history. He rises, and compels Brik to find out who he is, where he belongs, and what he wants out of life. As the story concludes, Brik hasn't figured any of that out, but he does see the negative of each - who he isn't, where he doesn't belong, and what he doesn't want out of life - in his present situation, which leads him to seek alternatives.
Yet despite these insights, Lazarus is a book whose greatness I can't adequately describe. For me it's one of those magnificent works of art, like the other books mentioned above or a Morphine song or Emil Nolde watercolor, that I simply can't do justice in words. All I can do is urge you to read and experience the book for yourself, as soon as you can.
For now it was nothing more than that - a thirst. Not dependence or even a habit; more of a pastime, a way to kill an hour after the morning crowds had dissipated and the start of his shift at the hotel. A man couldn't help being thirsty, he assured himself, after blowing a saxophone non-stop for three hours in the face of those brisk river winds. The bitter air dried his lips and tongue, and his playing could never cease, as commuters would never give money in return for silence. So he played until his mouth was raw, which was very hard work, and for that hard work he could see no reason to deny himself some refreshment at the Landmark Lounge if he chose. And it was still his choice. A pastime, he insisted.
Reading in Public: Washington, D.C., 1920
Here's a real charmer. Looks like the lad has been rudely interrupted and wants to resume his reading, though he's being polite about it. Washington, D.C., circa 1920, by an unidentified photographer of the National Photo Company. (Full photographic record here.)
(Reading in Public series is indexed here.)
"Quit These Hills"
My short story "Quit These Hills" has just been published in the recently launched online journal Big Pulp. My sincerest thanks to editor Bill Olver for accepting the story. While the journal classifies the story under Horror, I really don't think of it as a horror story. But the narrator's act could easily be considered horrific - at least to the polite society he disdains - so in that sense it is horror, I guess.
"Quit These Hills" is a combination and refinement of two shorter pieces that I previously wrote and submitted for story contests at The Clarity of Night. Neither submission was a finalist, so I salvaged their remains into this story, and I'm pretty pleased with the result. The story was originally inspired by the Pinetop Seven song of the same name, so I'd also like to thank that band's Darren Richard for permanently lodging that haunting tune in my memory.
But the morning rush slowly dwindled, the streams of office workers giving way to scattered clumps of tourists coming in on the train from the suburbs for the day. Though these people often had time to stay and listen, and even toss some change, they came by too infrequently to justify Henry staying around. By ten a.m. he had to be far to the east, on Michigan Avenue, changed into his uniform and ready to open and close doors for hotel guests for the next eight hours. As he packed up his saxophone and stuffed his middling take into his pants pocket, chasing for a few feet a dollar bill caught in a quick gust of wind, he realized without even checking his watch that he had barely an hour to spare. Barely an hour to ease his thirst.
"Shea as in stadium, Bon as in Jovi."
Terrific artist and FoPL Austin Kleon finally clarifies (for me, anyway) the proper pronunciation of Michael Chabon's last name. The source is Chabon himself, who delivers quite the NY/NJ-centric mnemonic:
"Shea as in stadium, Bon as in Jovi."
You'd think, given the striking Jay Ryan-designed poster print of the cover of The Final Solution that hangs in our front hallway, that I already would have known how to pronounce his name, but no. As an aside, Austin loves the book design of Maps and Legends, too. Guess I'm in good company.
Hemon's parallel narratives
I'm about halfway through Aleksandar Hemon's new novel, The Lazarus Project, and it's a pretty marvelous read - in many ways even better than Nowhere Man, which I loved. The book is structured as two parallel but interconnected narratives: the first is of an early 20th Century Ukrainian immigrant killed by Chicago police and branded as an anarchist in those feverish anti-immigrant times; and the second is of a modern-day writer, also an immigrant, who is obsessed with the anarchist's life and longs to write about it. I really like the parallel structure, which keeps each narrative fresh. My hope is that Hemon ultimately unifies these two threads in the book's conclusion, and doesn't leave each enigmatic and unresolved - I doubt that the writer character will ever truly find out who the anarchist really was, but I'm hoping this somewhat aimless soul finds himself in the process even if the anarchist remains an elusive mystery.
FoPL Mark Sarvas (oh, who am I kidding? he's friends of hundreds of litblogs) has a nice new piece, "The colour of Anna's coffin cushions", in the latest issue (theme: "Rage") of The Drawbridge. I strongly suspect this is an excerpt from his debut novel, Harry, Revised, which is getting strong notices from just about every literary outpost other than the most self-absorbed newspaper in New York.
Rumor has it that a copy of the book is making its way to my doorstep, possibly via an underpowered barge moving upriver against a heavy spring torrent. I'm really looking forward to reading this one, whenever it happens to get here.
Succumb to the Gaping Void
I've been enjoying Hugh McLeod's Gaping Void cartoons (all of them written on the back of business cards, often while imbibing in bars) for a while now, even though most of them are much more bitter, pissed-off and pessimistic than I generally am. But his latest, "live in paris", so perfectly nails the allure of Paris to American expatriate writers that I thought I'd link to it here, on this sort-of-literary blog of mine.
McCain has radical friends, too.
Barack Obama has had to repudiate his past associations with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and former 60s radical Bill Ayers. Rightly so, given that Obama doesn't share either's radical, extremist views. But as Steve Chapman sharply points out in today's Chicago Tribune, the same has not been required of John McCain. As recently as November, McCain said this to G. Gordon Liddy, who has hosted a McCain fundraiser in the past and donated generously to McCain's campaign fund:
"I'm proud of you, I'm proud of your family...It's always a pleasure for me to come on your program, Gordon, and congratulations on your continued success and adherence to the principles and philosophies that keep our nation great."
Mind you, this man that McCain so effusively admires is a convicted felon who: orchestrated the Watergate break-in which brought down the Nixon Administration, and has repeatedly said that the only thing he regretted about Watergate wasn't his criminal act, but getting caught; advocated kidnapping anti-war activists to prevent them from disrupting the Republican National Convention; planned the murder of an hostile journalist; and advocated the killing of ATF agents who were in the act of serving their official duties.
There is little doubt that Liddy is a radical, and a belligerently unrepentant one. True, he's a radical on the right-wing end of the political spectrum, versus the left-leaning Ayers and Wright. But he's a radical all the same, one who is openly hostile to the Constitution and the rule of law. He's clearly an extremist. So why isn't John McCain expected to repudiate him, just like Obama has done with Ayers and Wright?
Like so many other issues, most of the mainstream media has given McCain a free pass on the subject of Liddy. Shame on them.
New bird in town
For the past week we've been enjoying watching a new visitor to our backyard. (Visitor for now and, I'm hoping, soon-to-be permanent resident.) Last Sunday morning I was gazing through our kitchen window when a flurry of motion caught my eye. I saw a bird I had never seen before, with striking cinnamon-colored feathers on its back. It was about the same size as a robin, and scurried around like a robin, so at first I assumed it was a juvenile of that species which had not yet attained its trademark red breast. But through binoculors I was struck by the sight of this bird's breast, which was marked by brown spots. So I consulted our bird book and quickly realized it wasn't a young robin at all, and finally decided that it had to be a brown thrasher. It's a truly beautiful bird, and has also been very fun to watch - it's very energetic and feisty (often at the expense of our robins), and while it spent the first few days rooting around in the soil for worms and bugs, it soon took a liking to the birdseed in the feeder.
Since I had never seen a brown thrasher around here, I assumed this one was migrating and just passing through, and would be gone soon. But a week has now passed, and the bird is still here. And just last night, we saw a second brown thrasher in the yard, so we're crossing our fingers that this is a mating pair that will make our backyard their home. I'm certainly going to keep that feeder filled as an enticement to the two of them.
By the way, that photo above isn't mine, but a stock photo from Wikipedia (full-sized image here) that gives a much better up-close look than I could take on my own.
Song of the Week: Crash Test Dummies
Crash Test Dummies: Superman's Song
Crash Test Dummies are best known for their one hit, "MMM MMM MMM MMM", but while I only know of two other songs of theirs, both are far superior to their hit: a cover of the Replacements' "Androgynous", and this ode to the Man of Steel. While the obvious highlight of the song is the impossibly deep voice of frontman Brad Roberts, the lyrics are quite sharp as well:
Tarzan wasn't a ladies' man
He'd just come along and scoop 'em up under his arm
Like that, quick as a cat in the jungle
But Clark Kent now there was a real gent
He would not be caught sittin' around in no
Junglescape, dumb as an ape doing nothing
Superman never made any money
For saving the world from Solomon Grundy
And sometimes I despair the world will never see
Another man like him
Hey Bob, Supe had a straight job
Even though he could have smashed through any bank
In the United States, he had the strength, but he would not
Folks said his family were all dead
Their planet crumbled but Superman, he forced himself
To carry on, forget Krypton, and keep going
Tarzan was king of the jungle and Lord over all the apes
But he could hardly string together four words: "I Tarzan, You Jane. "
Sometimes when Supe was stopping crimes
I'll bet that he was tempted to just quit and turn his back
On man, join Tarzan in the forest
But he stayed in the city, and kept on changing clothes
In dirty old phonebooths till his work was through
And nothing to do but go on home
Having only minimal familiarity with the band, I hadn't thought of Crash Test Dummies in years. But recently I picked up the first two issues of Mark Russell's Superman Stories, a very funny and thought-provoking zine which imagines the everyday life of Superman. Sure, he has superpowers, but he has plenty of human weaknesses too - a violent temper, emotional impenetrability, boredom and much more. I strongly encourage you to give Russell a read.
And pondering the less-than-super traits of Superman that Russell writes about couldn't help but remind me of this wonderful song. I hope you enjoy both.