30 December 2010

I called the tree a butternut (which I don’t think
it is) so I could talk about how different
the trees are around me here in the rain.
It reminds me how mutable language is. Keats
would leave blank spaces in his drafts to hold on
to his passion, spaces for the right words to come.
We use them sideways. The way we automatically
add bits of shape to hold on to the dissolving dreams.
So many of the words are for meanwhile. We say,
“I love you” while we search for language
that can be heard. Which allows us to talk
about how the aspens over there tremble
in the smallest shower, while the tree over by
the window here gathers the raindrops and lets them
go in bunches. The way my heart carols sometimes,
and other times yearns. Sometimes is quiet
and other times is powerfully quiet.

-”The Butternut Tree at Fort Juniper” by Jack Gilbert

29 December 2010

Thanks to JW for turning me on to Chris Niemann‘s Abstract City Blog at the NY Times.  The Christmas cookie ritual is sacred for me, so I love this.  “Sloth” is my favorite.

27 December 2010

Well, no.  But he did get me…. a KINDLE!

Max, I hear what you’re saying.  The Kindle is the future; if you can’t beat ‘em – and why would you want to, anyway? – join ‘em.

Amazon just announced that the 3rd-generation Kindle is now officially the bestselling item in Amazon history, surpassing Harry Potter and the Death Hallows.

I futzed around with it for a few hours; browsed and downloaded some free content from Project Gutenberg; played with font size and style, turned on the text-to-voice function (ack!), explored the look and feel of Kindle-version magazines.  What I learned:  I’m a much more visual person than I even realized.  The impersonality of the text and layout, the absence of images and fonts, disregard for use of “white space” and margins and columns – it changes reading for me, and not in an appealing or exciting way.

Flipping through a book’s or a magazine’s pages is exactly that and not some digitized version of it; I want to see the words and images and title fonts laid out on the pages as I flip, I want to be influenced and guided by layout and design.  I want to remember and revisit that quote or passage, including its location and shape on the page, relative to other words and passages.  And yes, I want to feel the pages pass through my hands, experience a book’s weight and surfaces as well as its intellectual and emotional content.  A book is more than just an aggregation of text to me, as it turns out.  I sort of knew this, but now I know it.

So Kindleena is going back to Amazon.  (Thank you anyway, hun.)  This is not to say that I’m averse to e-readers in general.  But the Kindle is, I suppose, to me, the communist version of reading – egalitarian, yes.  True or beautiful, no.

24 December 2010

It’s beef bourguignon a la Anthony Bourdain tonight.  Use the cheap stuff, he says.  And so we will.

23 December 2010

Of course, ’tis the season of family – awareness/appreciation of, along with (re)consideration of who these people are and what it all means.  We watched THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT the other night, a meaningful and complex portrait of a new kind of family, i.e. one with two moms + sperm donor.  In the end, the film seems to be less about “lesbian family” and more about — as the philandering Jules (Julianne Moore) says, tearfully and remorsefully — “Marriage is hard.”  (It’s also, a little bit, about “men are clueless,” or at least Mark Ruffalo‘s character Paul is; but there seems to be hope for boys, and girls too, i.e. the kids are all right.)

I’m haunted a little by a recent re-reading of Toni Morrison‘s A Mercy.   It’s a story of makeshift family – a white couple, a Native American slave, two indentured servants, two black slave girls, a free black man — of misfits coming together in the wilderness, shedding conventional obligations and communal connections, partially by choice and partially by no-choice.  In the end, their ties are not strong enough to hold: “They once thought they were a kind of family because together they had carved companionship out of isolation.  But the family they imagined they had become was false.  Whatever each one loved, sought, or escaped, their futures were separate and anyone’s guess.”  Of course all this takes place in a ruthless, slavery-centered, 17th century world.  Have we made progress?

Random, but possibly related:   I recently learned that a pretty good friend of mine comes from a quite famous family.  It’s striking to learn such a thing, both for the fact itself and for the intentional belatedness of the revelation.  There are the people who come before us, and everything/everyone that comes after, blood-wise, inheritance-wise; this pattern of breaking from one’s familial past/being unable to escape one’s inheritance seems to me The Story of Life. I’m thinking also of Jean-Michel Basquiat (another recently-watched film, i.e. THE RADIANT CHILD), whose father apparently disapproved of his “lack of respectability,” and it pained Jean-Michel deeply, to the bitter end.

I seem to have blogged myself into a rather dark place here.  So let me return to the beginning: may your holidays be filled with appreciation, hope, and progress.

16 December 2010

From an article in The Observer about the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40″ series:

Importance to literary culture, however, doesn’t always neatly correspond with importance to literature. By presuming a particular career arc that tends to obscure “late bloomers,” these mostly well-intentioned exercises undercut their usefulness. They presume a particular career arc that tends to obscure late-bloomers; new writers are not necessarily young writers. Instead of highlighting new talent, they inadvertently end up championing precocity and nurturing a culture where early recognition and promise are conflated with achievement.

Phew, THANK you (and thanks to Alex Chee for posting).  I was starting to feel over-the-hill. (“We wanted to nominate you for Prestigious Award X,” my editor said the other day; “but the cut-off age is 35.”)

12 December 2010

Here is a book you should know about, if you don’t already:  The Literary Life, by Robert Phelps and Peter Deane.  The book’s subtitle is, “A Scrapbook Almanac of the Anglo-American Literary Scene from 1900 to 1950,” which rather says it all.  It has the physical feel of a high school yearbook, and some of the gossipy excitement of Facebook.

Year by year we learn of seminal books published in the US and around the world, awards granted, important works in other artistic disciplines, deaths (of literary personages), and a particularly fun section called “In the Margin,” made up of tidbits like

DH Lawrence, 27, elopes with Mrs. Frieda von Richthofen Weekley, staying at Metz, Germany, where local authorities arrest Lawrence as a spy (1912), and

Employed as an assistant night manager in a New York hotel, Nathanael West, 25, works on his first novel, and “arranges” special rates and free rooms for various friends, among them Dashiell Hammett, who finishes The Maltese Falcon (1927)

The book is also filled with notable (and little-known) author quotes and photos (just like a yearbook).   The Literary Life is out of print, but ABE Books can point you to some copies.

6 December 2010

A friend sent me this recently (we habitually exchange passages from books we’re reading):

I have been sober ever since.

I have just told a lie.

At forty, I am at a certain peace. I have plenty of
money and the love of a beautiful red-haired girl from
Colorado. What’s more, the closeness with my child-
ren has come back to a heavenly beauty, each child a
hero better than yours.

You may see me with the eye-patch, though, in
almost any city of the South, the Far West, or the
Northwest. I am on the black and chrome Triumph,
riding right into your face.

It’s from a Barry Hannah story. Coincidentally, when I had read the email from my friend, I had just gotten my motorcyclist’s license and was eyeing Triumphs parked on the streets.  Haven’t ridden into anyone’s face yet, but perhaps the story will light a fire…

Also recently read a Paris Review interview with Amy Hempel. It’s a good one, and in it she says that Hannah, along with Raymond Carver and Mary Robison, were her strongest influences when she started out.  There is a particularly wonderful section of the interview about “what is a story” that is exactly what I’d hoped she’d talk about, since her stories come to us as such unconventional shapes and experiences:

Years ago, Lenny Michaels was publishing some really fine short-short paragraph-long stories in good literary magazines. And I asked him if he took some heat from people who thought they weren’t really stories. He said, “You tell them what a story is. They don’t know.” This corroborated what I already suspected. It harkens back to the way you examine experience. Some writers have a more defined sense of cause and effect. Plot. My sense of life is more moment, moment, and moment. Looking back, they accrue and occur to you at a certain time and maybe you don’t know why, but you trust that they are coming back to you now for a reason. And you make a leap of faith. You trust you can put these moments together and create story[...]

Ultimately you write the way you can write. Someone once complimented Carver on a story, and he modestly said, It’s what I can do. I always thought that was a lovely thing to say, and accurate. Barry Hannah’s version was, Be master of such as you have.

All this to say that Barry Hannah will be joining the seminar reading list. Likely Amy Hempel as well.

3 December 2010

A very nice young woman came to see me the other day – a Korean student from Seoul, studying at another US college but visiting here for the semester.  She’d read Long for This World and came to the faculty reading (where I read along side my colleagues) a couple of weeks ago.

She was generous and effusive with her praise.  She is completely bilingual and writes fiction herself, in English at the moment.  She had some good thoughts for me about awkward honorifics in Long for This World.  Then she said: “This book should be published in Korea.  Everyone in Korea should read this.”

I laughed, of course.  Tell me about it, I wanted to say.  We tried.  Scribner tried.  Korean publishers did not bite (yet?!).

But the interaction had me thinking about those of us who write stories of cultures with which we have an inside/outside relationship.  A young Indian American woman who loves Jhumpa Lahiri‘s work told me that her parents and their friends don’t care for it.  Last night a friend described Daniyal Mueenuddin‘s stories as firmly set in Pakistan, about Pakistani lives, but very much written “from the outside” (for outsiders).

Currently, I am working on a book that renders characters and worlds of which I am personally completely outside.  Will readers who are inside the culture of the subjects resist/be indifferent to the work as Koreans are to Long for This World?  Of course the reasons for non-publication in Korea must be multiple, and economically-driven in a way I don’t myself grasp.  But all of this makes me think about why we write, why we write about what we write about, who we are in relation to what we write, for whom we write (if anyone)…  You know.  The Big Questions.

1 December 2010

I wasn’t sure if Marilynne Robinson‘s Gilead would go over so well with undergraduate students.  Despite it being a Pulitzer Prize winner and bestseller, it seemed to me a book most popular among, shall we say, mature (i.e. 40 and over) readers, along with perhaps readers friendly to Christianity.

It seemed to me obvious – although, in retrospect, I find my assumptions curious – that most students would come to the text with anything ranging from negativity to hostility toward Christianity.  In other words, smart is the opposite of Christian in the secular university environment.

For the most part my assumptions were correct (though I had an interesting chat with one student after class, who “outed” himself as a Christian).  But we had quite a rich discussion about it in seminar class.  And Ms. Robinson I think would be pleased by the comment of one student – firmly in the hostile camp – who said, “As I read this, though, it occurred to me that if all Christians were like this guy [the narrator, a minister], the world might actually be a much better place.”  Struggle and doubt and wonder are at the heart of the narrator’s world view; we can all get together around these, no?


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