There have been many tributes, including a lovely one from S&R’s own Pat Vecchio. Pat is a bass player himself, who, while he pooh poohs his skills, is capable of some decent licks. As he notes in his essay, he plays a Gibson SG because it looks like the Gibson EB-3 that Bruce played during those brief, glorious years of Cream’s existence. And he even admits that he got the blues outfit he plays with to do one of Cream’s signature tunes, “Born Under a Bad Sign,” so that he could play, as he modestly puts it, “a simplified version of Bruce’s bass line.”
I know something of how Pat feels. I was a much more serious player in my day (I won’t get into that now; this is about Jack, not me). One of the ways the band I played in warmed up was by playing another Cream signature tune…here’s Cream doing the number – with Jack playing that Gibson EB-3: Continue reading →
I suppose it is in that spirit that I picked up a copy of Maeve Binchy‘s Nights of Rain and Stars. The wildly popular Irish author produced numerous bestsellers and proudly proclaimed herself a happy composer of what are commonly called in the parlance of publishing “beach reads” – effortless, entertaining and ultimately forgettable tales. Nights of Rain and Stars seems to me to be exactly the sort of book well qualified to be a satisfying “beach read.” Continue reading →
“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” – Oscar Wilde
This is a stack of books. There are lots of these at my house. (image courtesy freedigitalphotos.net)
(For previous posts in this series look here, here, and here.)
After several threats to do so, I finally take a bit of time to update the 2014 reading list. Several elements have played into the list expanding well beyond its original limits: new friendships with publishers who asked me to review books, interesting finds at used book stores, decisions to read books so I’d know a little better what I was talking about when I castigated their authors.
So here we go. This, I hope, will catch up the 2014 reading list. Anything else that swims into view will go on the 2015 reading list. (I offer links for books that I have already written essays about.) Continue reading →
In the case of a writer like Nicholas Sparks, perhaps it’s that he gives readers a familiar story arc time after time that explains his success…
A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks (image courtesy Goodreads)
After reading a couple of superb pieces of literary fiction by J.F. Powers and Shelby Foote, I detoured from the 2014 reading list to take a look at the work of a writer whose success I’ve wondered about for some time.
Yep. That’s right. Literary fiction snob and crusty old professor Jim read him some Nicholas Sparks.
It happened accidentally. Lea and I were doing some book rearranging a few days ago and, as we shifted books from one bookcase to another, we came across a copy of Nicholas Sparks’s third novel, A Walk to Remember, a book Lea received from an aunt several years ago that had languished on our shelves. She moved to toss it into our donation box for the local library, but I stopped her. My words were something to the effect of “I’ve abused this guy’s work without having read it. I am going to read this novel and write about it.”
Shelby Foote’s tale of upper class Southerners behaving badly is redolent with that peculiarly disturbing characteristic called “Southernness…”
Love in a Dry Season by Shelby Foote (image courtesy Goodreads)
Let me me do what any good Southerner would do when asked for an explanation – tell you a story…
When I was writing the original draft of my novel The New Southern Gentleman, I had the ear (and the somewhat bemused interest) of a New York editor who was, I remember, working at that time for Henry Holt. He read a good chunk of the manuscript and recommended that I contact a writer friend of his, a fellow by the name of Walker Percy, even going so far as to send me Percy’s home address. I wrote to that estimable personage, author of a work I found influential, The Last Gentleman, and therefrom ensued a somewhat brief but memorable correspondence. One suggestion that Percy made I ignored – not out of disdain for the advice, which was excellent I now know, but out of what we might call “the anxiety of influence.” After reading several chapters of my manuscript, he recommended that I read “my friend Shelby’s book Love in a Dry Season.” (For those of you who don’t know, Walker Percy and Shelby Foote were best friends for 60 years.)
It was a sin of omission I have now corrected. My apologies, Mr. Percy, for delaying so long in taking your insightful advice. Love in a Dry Season is a marvelous novel, not just for its ability to compel you to read a novel about people you don’t much like, but, too, for its inherent grasp of how to convey what being Southern means.
Catholicism is darkly comic in J.F. Powers’s Morte D’Urban – would that it were more comic, less dark, in the real world…
Morte D’Urban by J.F. Powers (image courtesy Goodreads)
Well, this goes back yet again to Wufnik. He and I seem to bandy about the names of writers that we want the other to look into (often further into) on a regular basis. I did a piece a few weeks back abusing some schmuck who proclaimed “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” the greatest short story of all time. In his comment on that piece, Wufnik mentioned a couple of stories: Shirley Jackson’s widely anthologized masterpiece “The Lottery” and “Prince of Darkness” by another unjustly neglected American master of literary fiction, J. F. Powers.
I’d read Powers’s story sometime ago (in fact, I’d read his first collection of stories, of which “Prince of Darkness” was the title work). So, thinking I should read it again given Wufnik’s high opinion of it, I promptly went out to one of my favorite used book sellers and looked for a copy of that collection. In doing so I came across, in addition to the story collection, Powers’s first novel, a National Book Award winner, Morte D’Urban. So I got both books. When I came to them in my always increasing reading list, I had to make a choice. Since my own first book, a “novel-in-stories,” is called Morte D’Eden, I decided to give the Powers novel a go.
Almost forgotten as a writer now, Ben Ames Williams’s novels and stories represent the most interesting of American literary legacies – market driven art….
The Strange Woman by Ben Ames Williams (image courtesy Goodreads)
This essay concerns one of the novels of Ben Ames Williams. If you’re asking yourself “Who?” be assured that you’re not alone. A very successful “popular fiction” writer of the first half of the 20th century, Williams is almost forgotten now. The novel we’ll be discussing shortly is called The Strange Woman and was published when Williams was at the height of his popularity. The novel itself is…okay. The writer who produced it is fascinating as an example of a writer who made his creative decisions with a watchful eye to the market and whose oeuvre, as a result reflects that watchfulness – and whose literary reputation also reflects that watchfulness.
This, the last in this series of essays on the state of literary fiction at the end of the last century, will be a final look back to that halcyon time when an author thought he knew what the literary landscape was and felt comfortable making projections about whose literary reputations might last. Joe David Bellamy’s Literary Luxuries seems almost quaint now in its belief that the literary horizon was visible and that which authors might have lasting reputations would be a predictable thing.
Ah, the quaint mid- nineties. You know, when we thought Yahoo would be the search engine of choice and that the Internet would be primarily a supplement to make library use easier.
This last essay will look at two sections of his book. The first is a “teaching writing” issue that Bellamy talks about in a section called “Literary Vices.” Here Bellamy is on pretty solid ground. He gives solid, if unexceptional advice (beware of being too autobiographical), though he still feels the need to defend the “super fictions” of such Postmodernists such as Barthelme and DeLillo against the criticism of John Gardner (a debate I discuss in this essay). He also revisits the struggles he participated in against the attacks on the NEA (disguised, as pretty much all the Right’s attacks on anything that shows interest in public support for anything but military adventuring and their attendant crony capitalism, as moral outrage) by the Right while he was there. This is pretty straightforward stuff and Bellamy’s positions are probably in sync with most serious literary (or arts) types. Continue reading →
Handke, Austria’s (arguably the world’s) greatest living writer, will probably never get the Nobel…and maybe he shouldn’t…or should…
Peter Handke (image courtesy Wikimedia)
For some readers of this piece, the name Peter Handke will probably suggest only controversy. Handke has spent the last two decades of his life under attack for his association with – and inexplicable defense of – the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic. No less a personage than fellow Nobelist-in-waiting Salman Rushdie has called Handke a propagandist for the Milosevic government’s genocidal policies. When Handke received the International Ibsen Award earlier this year, Pen Norway called for the selection jury’s resignation and one scholar called giving Handke the award the equivalent of giving the Immanuel Kant Prize to Joseph Goebbels. Other important literary figures have defended Handke stating that he deserves the Nobel Prize – one claiming that she received the prize when Handke was the more worthy recipient.
All this comes as no surprise – troubling though it is – to me. I’ve been an admirer of Handke’s work since I was introduced to him in undergraduate school. What grabbed me initially was his “anti-play” Offending the Audience. Continue reading →
An interesting olio of tales, vignettes, and short stories with poetry used as a gloss…Kelley’s collection offers nods to Faulkner, Capote, O’Connor, and other Southern legends….
The Day the Mirror Cried by Saundra Kelley (image courtesy Goodreads)
Saundra Kelley’s new book The Day the Mirror Cried reflects a couple of facets of her professional life. Kelley is a professional storyteller, a member of the Storytellers’ Guild, based in one of the capitals of that oral art form, Jonesborough, Tennessee. But Kelley also has a student of literature, and this work, a rambling collection of what she calls “reflections,” “odd memories,” and “ruminations,” shows that while she has a deep understanding of the folkloric character of storytelling, she also has a deep appreciation of great writing. The Day the Mirror Cried is laced with allusions to the work of great Southern writers even as it offers its own fascinating insights into the culture of native Floridians.
Unlike the typical story collection which often progresses towards a key centerpiece work that gives the collection its name, Kelley begins with the piece that gives her work its title. “The Day the Mirror Cried” will remind readers of one of Faulkner’s most widely known stories, “A Rose for Emily,” and Kelley does a fine job of nodding to the great Mississippian while keeping true to her own tale. This story, which opens the first section of The Day the Mirror Cried, sets up some of the other nods to Southern Gothic tale telling that appear with it such as “The Ship’s Lantern” and “Laugh at the Moon No More.” One other story, “Emerald Forest,” is affecting in the same way as a Truman Capote tale: what begins as curiosity ends up in a sinister situation, changed in Kelley’s story by the intercession of a protective relative (and here the story echoes the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood with the main character’s brother acting the role of the woodsman). Continue reading →
Literary Luxuries by Joe David Bellamy (image courtesy University of Missouri Press)
This essay in the series of essays on Joe David Bellamy’s assessment of American writing ventures into territory that may be irrelevant by the time I finish this. In this section of Literary Luxuries: American Writing at the End of the Millennium, Bellamy tackles a problem that is solving itself – although not in a way that Bellamy, or anyone in academia or creative writing expected at the time of this book’s appearance in 1995.
The section containing Bellamy’s dispute with the structure of English departments and their contentious relationships with creative writing programs is called “Literary Education.” In a pair of essays called “The Theory of Creative Writing I: Keeping the Frog Alive” and “The Theory of Creative Writing II: the Uses of the Imagination and the Revenge of the Pink Typewriter” Bellamy discusses the two main issues that plagued relations between English departments and creative writing programs: the rise of literary theorists and their increasingly esoteric and irrelevant (to the teaching of English, particularly thinking and writing, anyway) specializations, and the emphasis on analytical/critical approaches to all learning that permeate academic instruction.
It’s not Santa Claus vs. the Martians – it’s Santa Claus (sorta) vs. the DEA – which is, come to think of it, almost as nuts…
St. Nic, Inc by S.R. Staley
Sam Staley’s latest book is a Christmas story. It’s not, however, the sort of Christmas story ones hears in homes on Christmas Eve. There are no shepherds “keeping watch over their flocks by night” or flying reindeer jockeyed by a “right jolly old elf.” Staley’s book is a Christmas story with all the 21st century twists: the North Pole is home to NP Enterprises, a slickly run distribution company with billions in revenues and a 26 year old MIT trained computer geek CEO named Nicole who employs large numbers of talented, intelligent people who happen to have the condition known as – you guessed it – dwarfism; its ability to operate is based on economic funding from a 21st century source – a computer operating system superior to others on the market; and its problems within the narrative come from overzealousness on the part of a government official.
NP Enterprises is a family owned business founded by Nicole’s great grandfather, a Dutchman named Nicholas Klaas, who moved to the Far North and began making toys which he sold to trappers and hunters for their children. Continue reading →
What Joe David Bellamy calls “super fiction” may well have led us to the superfluous…
Literary Luxuries by Joe David Bellamy (image courtesy University of Missouri Press)
(For previous essays in this series, look here, here and here.)
After a week away, we return to Joe David Bellamy’s Literary Luxuries: American Writing at the End of the Millennium. This will likely be the most interesting – and perhaps controversial – essay in this series because of Bellamy’s subject matter. The section of the book from which the Bellamy pieces to be discussed is called “Literary Meteorology,” and the subject matter is part and parcel of the argument that raged throughout the 20th century not just in literary circles but in other areas of what used to be known as “high art” – visual art and “serious” music: how far can artists (of all types) go in terms of experimentation with style and subject matter before they “lose” their audiences and end up “creating” only for themselves – and some precious few critics who value difficulty in ascertaining meaning as the highest hallmark of artistic achievement.
There are three essays in this section of Literary Luxuries, the first two of which deserve the most attention. Continue reading →
Mercedes Wore Black is either a romantic political thriller or a political thriller romance – that’s for the reader to decide…
Mercedes Wore Black by Andrea Brunais (image courtesy Goodreads)
Andrea Brunais is a highly decorated former investigative reporter in Florida. Her new novel, Mercedes Wore Black, reflects her knowledge of Florida politics,investigative journalism, and the changing media climate for reporters who want to write – and writers who want to report. It’s an interesting book, always lively, at times funny, at times deeply troubling, at times a little frustrating.
Like the Florida politics it depicts with pointed insight, it’s kind of a hot mess.
The novel concerns an investigative journalist, Janis Hawk, who is fired by her newspaper – seemingly as part of the wholesale downsizing of newspapers that goes on apace – but Hawk’s firing has, as one would guess from the introduction, political motives. She’s been stepping on the toes of the rich and powerful: developers who want to ruin delicate sea grass beds to gouge out a deep water docking area at a port only a few miles from plenty of deep water anchorage; an unscrupulous gaming management company trying to take over the Florida lottery business; and, of course, politicians whose greed, lust, and general smarminess they would prefer not to have discussed in public.
Luckily – for both Hawk and the plot – Janis has a wealthy and powerful 2nd wave feminist mentor and friend who puts her into business as a journalist blogger which allows Hawk to continue her investigative reporting. This brings her into contact with both friends (the Mercedes of the title, for example, is an old college friend working for the gubernatorial campaign of a maverick politician with high ideals) and enemies (see above). From those connections, as the old saw goes, things get interesting.
Jansson’s brilliance is her understanding that the world of childhood and the world of adulthood are separated by the thinnest of distances – sort of an “It’s just a jump to the left” thing….
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (image courtesy Goodreads)
Once again my fellow “mad for reading” sort Wufnik got to me.
Wuf wrote an intriguing piece about the Finnish writer Tove Jansson, she of “Moomins” fame, who also had a significant career as a writer of works for adults. I was vaguely familiar with the Moomin books (terrific stuff for children and adults smart enough to realize that kids like the best stuff), but I had no experience with – actually, knowledge of – her work for adults. So after reading Wufink’s essay on the dreamlike, magical memoir Sculptor’s Daughter, I expanded my 2014 reading list yet again (I have got to do a post to share the added works I’ve been reading) to add one of Jansson’s works. My choice was one of Jansson’s earliest forays into adult fiction, the in-its-own-right dreamlike and magical (magical and dreamlike aren’t fair terms to use for Jansson, for she has those qualities in ways that make other writers see uncomfortably pedestrian – in fact, what she does probably should have resulted in the coinage of its own term – Janssonesque) work, The Summer Book.
The Summer Book is a work of fiction – to call it a novel would not be accurate, nor would calling it a short story collection be correct in any strict sense. The term vignette is most apropos, probably, but that implies a fleeting quality to each of the 22 brief – tales. Tales is a good term, one that links Jansson to the writer I know most akin to her in storytelling – Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), the great Danish tale teller. While their subject matter is radically different, the spellbinding charm of the two writers as storytellers is such that reading one will remind one of the other. Continue reading →
McEwan’s novel is well written and has a fine plot – except for the gimmicky ending…
Atonement by Ian McEwan (image courtesy Goodreads)
This essay about a work from my 2014 reading list looks at one of the most successful novelists of the last two decades. Ian McEwan has had a highly successful run as a commercially successful and acclaimed writer. His 2001 novel Atonement was short listed for the Booker Prize (England’s most prestigious literary award) and was made into a highly successful motion picture in 2007.
In most ways Atonement is a worthy novel. The theme, which examines the results of allowing one’s imagination to overpower one’s reason and senses, allows McEwan to examine the role of the artist in society and issues of class prejudice and family dysfunction. McEwan writes with both authority and skill and has a grasp of language that allows him at times to play with words (especially in his descriptions of the novel’s “writer” character, Briony Tallis, and her early forays into writing).
The plot of the novel owes something to other authors, particularly Graham Greene (one thinks of “The Basement Room,” Greene’s fine story that served as the basis for the excellent Carol Reed film The Fallen Idol). In a reversal of that storyline, McEwan has Briony Tallis, a child of 13 at the time of the novel’s major incident, hold the novel’s romantic lead, Robbie Turner, in a sort of snobbish didain based on his class background. Turner, the son of a Tallis family servant, has been sponsored to both grammar school (English prep school) and to Cambridge by Briony’s father. Briony’s older sister Cecilia, roughly Robbie’s age, has grown up with him – and has attended Cambridge with him as well. As often happens in novels of class/manners in English literature, the two have long been in love without acknowledging their feelings. Briony’s childishly violent disapproval of their relationship – provoked by her discovery on the two in flagrante in the library of the Tallis home – leads her to commit an act of perjury against Turner that ruins not only his life but her sister’s. To compound the miseries associated with her act, her lie allows a rapist to escape punishment and have a long, successful career in business – he even eventually marries his victim. Continue reading →
Writers’ conferences , as you may have long suspected, have a pecking order – and most of us are at the bottom…
Literary Luxuries by Joe David Bellamy (image courtesy University of Missouri Press)
(For previous essays in this series, look here and here.)
This week’s look at Joe David Bellamy’s book of essays on the state of American Writing (by which you by now have gathered he’s talking mainly about litfic), Literary Luxuries, takes a look at that interesting phenomenon of the literary world that has evolved since the advent of the brave new world of teaching creative writers, the writers’ conference. There are a couple of essays to discuss for this topic, so we’ll take a look at both. We’ll also be looking at what writers’ conferences really are – and whether they make a difference for the rank and file writer.
Bellamy’s essays take two almost opposing views of the writers’ conference. In the first essay, “The Bread Loaf Experience,” his tone is tongue in cheek bordering at times on caustic as he describes (based on his own experience, of course) what attending perhaps the most renowned of writers’ conferences is like. Bread Loaf is attended not just by the great and renowned but by many, many aspiring writers who hope by attending sessions to catch the attention of a powerful figure whether that person be another writer, a literary agent, or an editor from an important publishing house. Continue reading →
John McPhee’s greatness lies in his ability to make the real world and its inhabitants as interesting as if they were fictional…
The Survival of the Bark Canoe by John McPhee (image courtesy Goodreads)
Here’s one from the 2014 reading list that I’ve been looking forward to reading. I have been a John McPhee fan since I was an undergraduate. My composition class “reader” had an excerpt from Oranges about fighting a frost in Florida with smudge pots that hooked me on his approach to nonfiction. (Some of the more hoary of you working through this piece may remember those books called readers. They were books of essays by great nonfiction writers assigned in 1st year composition classes to provide “writing models” to callow 18 years olds in the quaintly delusional hope that some of the greatness of an E.B. White, Lewis Thomas or John McPhee would enter our heads and come out through our pens back in those halcyon days when we rode dinosaurs to classes.) The use of these has been widely discontinued – an act, I suspect, owing as much to the despair writing teachers feel of ever encountering a writer who could, to borrow a metaphor from Rogers Hornsby, at least “carry the bat” of a White or Thomas – or McPhee – as to changes in the pedagogical approach to teaching writing.
The Survival of the Bark Canoe is a brief book, only 114 pages. That is often the case with McPhee; he does not write long pieces because he actually writes pieces suitable for inclusion in magazines. The magazine he is most closely associated with is the same one that E. B. White and his contemporary James Thurber helped make famous: The New Yorker. Given that magazine’s history for stellar writing – and occasionally writing that manages to be pompous and precious at once – one can easily jump to the conclusion that McPhee has that ironic, wittily condescending style many associate with the nation’s premier “high brow” mass market magazine (though these folks might disagree with that assessment). Nothing could be further from the truth – and therein lies McPhee’s greatness. His ability to immerse himself in the stories he explores and bring to life their characters draws readers along as if they were reading fiction. Continue reading →