Happy New Year!
"...pelted from above like an object of general derision."
This passage from Oryx and Crake really highlights Margaret Atwood's poetic skills, as she describes her syntax-obsessed protagonist.
The lightning sizzles, the thunder booms, the rain's pouring down, so heavy the air is white, white all around, a solid mist; it's like glass in motion. Snowman - goon, buffoon, poltroon - crouches on the rampart, arms over his head, pelted from above like an object of general derision. He's humanoid, he's hominid, he's an aberration, he's abominable; he'd be legendary, if there were anyone left to relate legends.
Generally I'm not a big fan of similes, but they're well done here.
Quote"I have always thought of poems as stepping stones in one's own sense of oneself. Every now and again you write a poem that gives you self-respect and steadies your going a little bit farther out in the stream. At the same time, you have to conjure the next stepping stone because the stream, we hope, keeps flowing. The challenge for the writer, book by book, is to conjure a stepping stone that carries you forward."
- Seamus Heaney
Isn't it strange that during this visit from Santa, presumably during the middle of the night and after he just came down the chimney, there's a roaring fire going in the fireplace? What, does Santa not just drop off the presents, but also makes himself at home, starts a new fire, and maybe pours himself a nightcap and settles into an easy chair?
Good Reading 2013
2013 was another interesting year of reading. (As always, this list is based on books read, not strictly published, in 2013.) Taking the top spot was J.F. Powers' Morte D'Urban, a marvelously dry satire of 1950s Midwestern priesthood that reminded me of my hero Sinclair Lewis, though warmer and less caustic. Summer of Classics was much improved, as I went ancient with the Scandinavian epics Egil's Saga and The Poetic Edda, plus The Odyssey and Dante's Inferno. I still read barely any fiction by women writers (continuing shame on me for that), though Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake is pretty damned wonderful and will definitely result in my reading the last two books of the MaddAddam trilogy. Also of note: two solid debuts, from Patrick Michael Finn and Edward J. Rathke; my prolific buddy Ben Tanzer's highest ranking yet; and the surprising appearance of five non-Americans (Atwood, Seamus Heaney, Hans Keilson and Knut Hamsun, plus the anonymous bard behind Egil's Saga) in the top ten. Plus there's this Anderson guy, with his first novel and two anthology appearances, whose writing some people seem to moderately enjoy.
1. J.F. Powers: Morte D'Urban (Review)
2. Kent Haruf: The Tie That Binds (Review)
3. Margaret Atwood: Oryx and Crake
4. Egil's Saga (Review)
5. Ben Tanzer: Orphans (Review)
6. Seamus Heaney: North (Review)
7. Hans Keilson: Comedy in a Minor Key (Review)
8. Knut Hamsun: Tales of Love & Loss (Review)
9. Patrick Michael Finn: From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet (Review)
10. Edward J. Rathke: Ash Cinema (Review)
Honorable Mention: Jeff Sypeck: Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles; William Trevor: Cheating at Canasta; The Poetic Edda; Kurt Vonnegut: Armageddon in Retrospect; James Claffey: Blood a Cold Blue; Kingsley Amis: Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis
Special Mention, But Much Too Biased and Humble to Objectively Assess: Peter Anderson, Wheatyard; Various Writers: Daddy Cool; Various Writers: On the Clock: Contemporary Short Stories of Work
Re-Readings: Studs Terkel: Chicago; Peter Schickele: The Definitive Biography of P.D.Q. Bach; Jack London: The Call of the Wild; Mike Royko: Like I Was Sayin'...; Edgar Allan Poe: Tales of Mystery and Imagination
"I have the blues pretty badly as you can see, from this graph in back of meeee."
I'm greatly enjoying a revisit to Great Pop Things, the comics alternate-reality history of rock and roll written and illustrated by Colin B. Morton and Chuck Death (a/k/a Jon Langford of the Mekons), which appeared in alternative weeklies during the 1980s and 1990s. That panel above is from Morton and Death's reinterpretation of the early days of the Rolling Stones, and is a pretty solid example of the full collection. Of course the narrative veers wildly from actual history, but the satire still cuts deep as the authors gleefully puncture the pomposity and self-mythology of rockers again and again.
Ice Ice Baby
I love this photo. If my writing was at all comic - which it isn't - I'd want to have this as a book cover some day.
Death of a thief
Until this morning, I had never heard of Ronnie Biggs and knew almost nothing about the Great Train Robbery, in which a gang of seventeen thieves robbed a British mail train in 1963 of £2.6 million (over $50 million in current dollars). But then a news story on NPR reported on his death, at age 84, which lead me to this article at The Guardian along with a string of related pieces. Without at all glorifying his crime (the train's engineer ultimately died from his injuries), I'm marveling at what a fascinating life this man had: he was involved in the heist; was arrested, convicted and sentenced to thirty years in prison; broke out of prison; fled to South America and lived the good life there for thirty-six years; was abducted in 1981 by bounty hunters who took him to Barbados, which refused to extradite him; finally surrendered to British authorities in 2001 and imprisoned; and was released in 2009 due to poor health. Along the way he seems to have become some sort of folk hero, and even recorded a record with the Sex Pistols.
It seems to me that Biggs' life is the stuff of great fiction; in fact, if a crime novelist wrote something comparable, it might even be criticized as being too audacious and unreal. Still, I like to imagine writing a fugitive character like Biggs. The thought of him sitting in a bar, regaling paying listeners with his implausible story after his heist money finally ran out, is both intriguingly arrogant and poignant to me. I wouldn't write the story as explicitly about Biggs, but instead with him as inspiration. I'm filing that away in the Tenuous Concept corner of my brain.
Would You Rather...
At The Next Best Book Club blog, I have subjected myself to a slew of Would You Rather questions. Here's a taste.
Would you rather have schools teach your book or ban your book?
Having your book taught in schools gives you a guaranteed audience but, if you're someone like Nathaniel Hawthorne or John Milton, it also eventually gives you multitudes of bitter adults who curse and grit their teeth at the mere mention of your name. By contrast, getting your book banned usually turns you into an iconic hero. So ban me.
My sincere thanks to TNBBC's Lori Hettler for running this. It was great, narcissistic fun.
"Out, out, brief candle."
More from Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. Snowman has just climbed down from his nighttime refuge (a tree) to fetch some whiskey he previously scavenged from an abandoned house.
...he locates his cement hidey-hole by stubbing his toe on it. He refrains from swearing: no way of telling what else might be prowling around in the night. He slides open the cache, fumbles blindly within it, retrieves the third of Scotch.
He's been saving it up, resisting the urge to binge, keeping it as a sort of charm - as long as he's known it was still there it's been easier to get through time. This might be the last of it. He's certain he has explored every likely site within a day's out-and-back radius of his tree. But he's feeling reckless. Why hoard the stuff? Why wait? What's his life worth anyway, and who cares? Out, out, brief candle. He's served his evolutionary purpose, as Crake knew he would. He's saved the children.
"Fucking Crake!" he can't help yelling.
That "easier to get through time" is just devastating, so quietly devastating. The idea that Snowman feels he has nothing left to live for, and the only thing that has kept him from ending it all is the mere thought that some numbing Scotch still remains.
"The belly is an ungrateful wretch, it never remembers past favors, it always wants more tomorrow." - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Solzhenitsyn was born 95 years ago today. I loved One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich but had to abandon August 1914 - after 200 pages, the author was still doing character introductions, each one of which involved telling the person's life story. I didn't sense that ending any time soon, and so with the daunting prospect of 700 pages still ahead, I gave up. I was surprised at how slow and ponderous the book was, especially after enjoying the tight and spare prose of Ivan Denisovich. I still might tackle The Gulag Archipelago someday, if I ever get particularly ambitious.
"...a florid, square face, well-visored with good living and sane opinions..."
Willa Cather, from her short story "A Gold Slipper":
In the moment her bright, curious eyes rested upon him, McKann seemed to see himself as if she was holding a mirror up before him. He beheld himself a heavy, solid figure, unsuitably clad for the time and place, with a florid, square face, well-visored with good living and sane opinions - an inexpressive countenance. Not a rock face, exactly, but a kind of pressed-brick-and-cement face, a "business" face upon which years and feelings had made no mark - in which cocktails might eventually blast out a few hollows. He had never seen himself so distinctly in his shaving-glass as he did that instant when Kitty Ayshire's liquid eye held him, when her bright, inquiring glance roamed over his person.
McKann is a coal merchant, and Kitty is an opera singer that McKann sees perform. Much of the story involves their stark differences, which are told through a long conversation they later have on a train bound for New York. Fine story, one that reminds me a lot of Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser. That paragraph above is excellent throughout, and I particularly like the "pressed-brick-and-cement-face": McKann is an industrialist, a capitalist, and the face he has isn't natural like "a rock face" would be, but instead manufactured from years of business dealings.
Several times during the past few years I've done "structured reading" - reading three related books in succession, which I've found interesting in how the books contrast with and even comment on each other. My next structured reading will be sometime next year, consisting of three novels of early 20th Century Midwest realism: Cather's My Antonia, Sherwood Anderson's Windy McPherson's Son and Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons. I already own the first two, but need to pick up a copy of Tarkington. Looking forward to that.
"The Cries of London"
Spitalfields Life presents a charming 19th Century pamphlet, titled "The Cries of London", which displays the cries of various London street merchants. Though I wonder why someone ever published this in the first place - maybe for tourists? - it's a lovely relic that I'd love to own.
"Singing for the Here and Now"
My short story "Singing for the Here and Now" has been published at the online literary journal Anthology of Chicago. Many thanks to editor Rachel Hyman.
This story is the first to be published from my Chicago neighborhood collection Where the Marshland Came to Flower, and has a rather unique provenance. Years ago I wrote a short story, "Hope Cafe", about an idealistic young woman who quits her corporate job to open up a coffee shop on Chicago's South Side, just across the street from the recently demolished Robert Taylor Homes public housing projects. For various reasons that story remains unpublished, but a secondary character, Tonya, has stayed with me ever since. As I was develping Marshland, I thought up a story which had Tonya as protagonist, and which delved more deeply into her uncertain feelings about religious faith and her complicated relationship with her grandmother, both of which were briefly alluded to in the earlier story. To me, "Singing for the Here and Now" is a much deeper, richer and more realistic story than "Hope Cafe" is or ever will be, which is partly due to having a more interesting protagonist but most likely due to me having developed into a more mature writer by the time the later story was written.
I haven't published many short stories during the last few years, as my writing has focused more on book-length projects rather thainstead of individual stories. I hope to publish a few more Marshland stories in the future, but I'm hesitant to publish too many of them. If and when Marshland is finally published as a collection, I'd prefer to have most of the stories appear for the very first time, to give readers something fresh.
"Strange to think of the endless labour..."
Margaret Atwood, from Oryx and Crake:
Then he makes his way to a jagged concrete overhang that was once part of a bridge. Beneath it there's a triangular orange sign with the black silhouette of a man shovelling. Men at Work, that used to mean. Strange to think of the endless labour, the digging, the hammering, the carving, the lifting, the drilling, day by day, year by year, century by century; and now the endless crumbling that must be going on everywhere. Sandcastles in the wind.
Fifty pages in, and very good so far. To this point Atwood has offered only tantalizing glimpses of the degraded, almost post-apocalyptic world Snowman lives in, and how it got that way, which keeps me eager to read more.
"Words still have a meaning, still clear and still the same..."
Kenneth Fearing was a noir novelist and poet, and probably best known for the novel The Big Clock. The Neglected Books blog posted his poem "Cracked Record Blues" (from Afternoon Of A Pawnbroker And Other Poems, 1944), which I like quite a bit:
Cracked Record Blues
If you watch it long enough you can see the clock move.
If you try hard enough you can hold a little water in the palm of your hand,
If you listen once or twice you know it’s not the needle, or the tune, but a crack in the record when sometimes a phonograph falters and repeats, and repeats, and repeats, and repeats
And if you think about it long enough, long enough, long enough, long enough then everything is simple and you can understand the times,
You can see for yourself that the Hudson still flows, that the seasons change as ever, that love is always love,
Words still have a meaning, still clear and still the same;
You can count upon your fingers that two plus two still equals, still equals, still equals, still equals -
There is nothing in this world that should bother the mind.
Because the mind is a common sense affair filled with common sense answers to common sense facts,
It can add up, can add up, can add up, can add up earthquakes and subtract them from fires,
It can bisect an atom or analyze the planets -
All it has to do is to, do is to, do is to, do is to start at the beginning and continue to the end.
Fearing was a Chicago-area native who attended Oak Park-River Forest High School (alma mater of my father-in-law) and the University of Illinois (alma mater of both Julie and myself), and later co-founded The Partisan Review. After being subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney in 1950 and asked if he was a member of the Communist Party, he simply replied, "Not yet." Gotta admire that.
Fading Ads and Fading AIDS
My great friend Frank Jump is refining his Fading Ad Campaign series of fading ad photographs, and will soon be incorporating vintage ads into portraits of fellow AIDS survivors, such as the photo of Steed Taylor and the Griffon Shears ad shown above.
As this project has matured and I have become a long-term survivor, the original metaphor of the Fading Ad Campaign that rang true for me fifteen years ago still resounds, but the overtones have modulated. Although I continue to utilize these images to draw light upon the fading problem of AIDS, fostering awareness isn’t the primary focus anymore as is the condition of the aging survivors, many of whom have lost their fear of dying from AIDS but are succumbing to age-related illnesses and complications from pharmacological toxicities. Through this campaign, my life mission is to continue to shed light on this lingering issue that still affects many of us in the LGBTQ community.
Frank has always seen fading ads as a metaphor for perseverance and survival, but this series of portraits and interviews with AIDS survivors will undoubtedly make that connection even stronger. I'm really looking forward to seeing what he comes up with.