28 November 2010
I confess that the winter holidays are not my best time of year. They sneak up on me, and all of a sudden I realize I’m tense and furrowed in the brow. From now until January 2, I will, figuratively speaking, be closing my eyes and thinking of England. [Note: I'm not sure where this expression comes from, originally. I know that I took it from Aaron Sorkin/The West Wing and use it probably too often.]
A few years ago it dawned on me that somewhere along the way I’d allowed Rockwellian kitsch to get under my skin. That year, my family had exploded into chaos. On impulse, and with little in the way of better alternatives, I went straight to the source, a kind of exorcism: I spent Christmas at a bed and breakfast in Stockbridge, MA — Norman Rockwell country. We ate prime rib by the hearth, the whole deal. It was snowing buckets. We drove by Rockwell’s house, went to the Rockwell Museum, I even bought the monograph. I learned that Rockwell’s work had been misappropriated; that he was an artist of dimensional talents; that his life and vision were nothing like the weirdly placid winter-wonderland harmony Americans had internalized.
This year, Flavorwire offers us “5 Literary Families More Dysfunctional Than Yours.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve read each of these, and treasure them all. Enjoy!
Update (thanks, Wendy!): on the origins of the expression “Close your eyes and think of England” – hilarious!
24 November 2010
I’m participating in a reading event next Thursday, Dec 2. The series is called SWEET: ACTORS READING WRITERS, curated by Shelly Oria and Annie Levy. Actors read our fiction, nonfiction, and poetry excerpts. Featured at the Dec 2 event:
Simon Feil reading BEATEN, SEARED, AND SAUCED by Jonathan Dixon
Scott Nogi reading LOVE CREEPS by Amanda Filipacchi
Joya Mia Italiano reading PERSONAL DAYS by Ed Park
Soneela Nankani reading BREAKING FORM and other poems by Maya Pindyck
And, Tonya Edmonds reading an excerpt from my novel-in-progress, SEBASTIAN & FREDERICK.
This will be the first public outing for S&F.
Join us! 7:30 at Three of Cups, First Avenue at 5th Street in the East Village.
19 November 2010
It’s syllabus-making time again, my favorite. In the spring I’m teaching a course on “Approaches to the Short Story,” a wonderfully broad topic. My list of authors is in-process and ever-growing; shaping the reading list into a kind of story in itself is what’s fun. I always try to form the list out of authors over whose work I am gaga; stories that are “instructive” in graspable ways and on multiple levels; and authors whose work I myself want to study more closely.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Selections from Daniel Halperin’s The Art of the Story international anthology
To be continued…
13 November 2010
Flavorwire recently published a list of “10 Essential Books from the Last 25 Years” — what they call “books that people know about, relate to, and converge around, all from the last 25 years,” “literary touchstones,” and a “contemporary canon.”
This sort of list makes me uncomfortable somehow. I’m not sure of its value. The implication here is that we “should” have this sort of common literary bookshelf, a group of contemporary texts that we’ve all read and in which we are conversant. My skepticism I think has to do with the test of time issue.
I’ve read four of the 10; only one to which I’d consider attaching the word “essential.” Maybe two. There’s one text I haven’t read but want to, because I have a feeling it IS essential. The others I haven’t read mostly because of mixed reviews — professional, and also by readers I know personally/trust.
Maybe in general this idea of what I “should” be reading, just because there’s a lot of cultural buzz around it (James Frey‘s controversial “memoir,” for example) — as opposed to the notion that I should be reading great work that moves/changes me, and also inspires and instructs my own work — rubs me the wrong way. I’m a fan of the idea of a highly individualized map of literary influence, one that optimizes one’s development as a human being and as a writer.
There is a lot of great work to be read, much of it non-contemporary; and never enough time to read it all. I’m not saying don’t read contemporary work; but “everyone’s reading it and talking about it” doesn’t strike me as a compelling enough reason to read something, especially when your own “essential” list is already longer than you have time for.
11 November 2010
Why, you ask, am I sharing this with you?
Well, it’s kind of a seminal thing for me. I wrote here a while back about my ergonomic issues (back, wrists, etc). I ended up buying a $25 exer-ball and using that as my desk chair. It’s been working pretty well. But I still had no good comfortable chair in which to sit and read. Plus, my bed kind of sucks, i.e. the mattress not so great, so reading in bed isn’t particularly comfortable either.
I own very little new furniture. (Do I own any new furniture? Oh, I recently bought a TV cart.) I’ve always been happy to take the charming cast-offs of friends and family. I’ve never really been able to afford new furniture. But this chair thing. I’ve been thinking about it for a long, long time. I should do it, it will be an investment in my back, in my life as a reader and writer. So recently, finally, I took the plunge.
It was a floor model, sold on ebay for a steal. I guess it’s technically not “new,” but to me it definitely is.
Also of note: I think it may be the same chair as Don Draper’s office chair in Season 4 of MAD MEN.
I love this chair.
6 November 2010
Reading Isak Dinesen (nee Karen Blixen) makes one content to check out from life as we know it. Her stories are so absorbing, the people in them strange and otherworldly. I am four tales into Seven Gothic Tales, all of which so far are simply remarkable, romantic and creepy (there is an arresting moment in “The Old Chevalier” in which a woman is imagined naked down to her bones, i.e. the beauty of her skull is considered). Particularly intriguing is Dinesen’s bending of gender in all her stories (not just in her use of a pseudonym); her insight and imaginative powers with regard to the nature of male and female seem to me unmatched.
Dinesen is most well-known for Out of Africa (the fine film version of which starred Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen, and features what I think is one of the most affecting minimalist-erotic scenes in movie history), but her non-autobiographical storytelling talents are equally stunning. Judith Thurman wrote a biography of Dinesen, A Tale of Destiny (1982), which I’m interested to read; here’s a link to Margaret Drabble‘s NYT review, in which Drabble wrote:
Witch, sibyl, lion hunter, coffee planter, aristocrat and despot, a paradox in herself and a creator of paradoxes, a desperately sick but indestructible woman, she steps forth from these pages with all the force of legend and all the human detail and frailty of a real person made by real circumstance. This, like the best biographies, is a book in which the reader can live, and which, despite its wealth of insight, leaves final judgments to the reader. It is a fine achievement.
I read somewhere that Dinesen’s official cause of death, at age 77, was emaciation. Gothic, indeed.
2 November 2010
I love this, from Maud Newton, “When You and Your Friends Love Different Books.” And, very much agree about Somerset Maugham.
I myself need to get better at graciousness and at not jumping to character judgment: What?! You think Chekhov is boring?! Off with your head!
(But this divergence of passions, this being moved/spoken to by different books, styles, authors… speaks to something I was trying to express in my essay at The Millions this week about good writing and great writing and how we, as writing teachers, might want to err toward the generous in terms of which students we encourage; i.e how well can we really judge a student’s potential greatness? Is my job to encourage only the sort of work that I would read? Would I have told Adam Levin to hang on to his day job?)
ps – don’t forget to vote!