The Nobel Prize for Literature will be awarded today. There are a large number of arguably splendid candidates. Who will win? Likely none of them….
Nobel Prize Medal (image courtesy Wikimedia)
The Nobel committee has chosen the 2015 Nobelist in Literature and their choice will have been announced by the time you read this. The list of candidates with credentials strong enough to be legitimate contenders. There are even those out there who spend time handicapping the field. First, the bad news: it seems highly unlikely that an American will get the award despite a strong contingent of worthy candidates including Joyce Carol Oates, John Ashberry, Don DeLillo, and my personal favorite, Richard Ford. (Odds makers exclude those whom the Nobel committee likely consider “regional” writers – worthy authors such as Cormac McCarthy or John Ehle.)
Even Bob Dylan is mentioned as a candidate. But that choice is by all accounts blowin’ in the wind. Or tangled up in blue. Or something. Continue reading
Americans are writing and publishing more than ever; meanwhile, arguments rage about the inability of Americans to write and what educators should do to address this perceived inability.
Ursula Le Guin (image courtesy Wikimedia)
In a recent interview with Salon, author Ursula Le Guin bemoans the lack of skill she sees in aspiring writers. Le Guin blames the problems she sees in writers – serious, well educated people – on a lack of two sets of skills. First, she notes that she sees many people trying to write who don’t have solid language management skills: they lack solid backgrounds in syntax (sentence structure) knowledge and they have weak vocabularies so that they do not easily see possibilities in sentence construction or word choice that would give their writing imagination and vigor. The other problem Le Guin observes is that the way in which many people attempt to become writers – through creative writing programs – does many nascent writers harm by forcing them to submit to a form of group think.
In a recent Washington Post op-ed, writer Natalie Wexler attempts to explain “Why Americans can’t write.” Wexler’s thesis, that Americans do not get adequate writing instruction, meshes nicely with Le Guin’s observation. One can easily conclude that, if Wexler is correct in her claim that Americans get too little writing instruction, it is only natural that their creative writing efforts would suffer from the sort of grammar and syntax deficiencies that Le Guin mentions.
As with most easy explanations, this one leaves some questions unanswered. Continue reading
A bit like a mystery, a bit like a thriller, a bit like the notes from a theological conclave: John Chaplick’s Forbidden Chronicles of a Roman Centurion offers all kinds of readers an interesting trip into the search for the various forms of truth religious texts offer us….
Forbidden Chronicles of a Roman Centurion by John Chaplick (image courtesy Southern Yellow Pine Publishing)
A Roman centurion who knew the Apostle Paul sends his son an original version of the New Testament. Twenty centuries or so later, the letter he sent along with the manuscript is discovered by an archaeologist and brought to the attention of a museum curator, a couple of theologians, a history professor, and a graduate student writing on material related to the discovery. These five enlist the archaeologist, they split into two groups of three, and each group goes in search of that important – and likely controversial – document.
That, in a nutshell is the plot of Forbidden Chronicles of a Roman Centurion, a book that explores some profound ideas even as it veers between being a mystery, a thriller, and a theological symposium. What Chaplick seeks to do is almost as elusive and difficult as what his characters attempt to do in his novel: explore a profound religious question while at the same time keep readers entertained.
He comes close to pulling off this near impossible feat.
What will make Forbidden Chronicles a challenge to the reader attracted to its Da Vinci Code like narrative is that author Chaplick peppers the novel with at times almost dauntingly philosophical and theological discussions among his main characters. Continue reading
Wilma Dykeman’s The Tall Woman is a masterpiece of straight forward story telling that deserves to be better known – Dykeman presents a quietly powerful depiction of the life of an Appalachian heroine that rings true in every respect…
The Tall Woman by Wilma Dykeman (image courtesy Goodreads)
Finally, a return to the 2015 reading list after some side trips to cover in once case a current literary flap and some musings on the disappearance of protest music from American cultural experience – and what a return it is. Wilma Dykeman’s The Tall Woman is an example of the sort of rich storytelling that once populated American fiction publishing. This unpretentious but exquisitely literate – and literary in the best sense of that word – novel is an example of regional fiction that rises far above its author’s primary aim to make profound statements about human character.
Lydia Moore McQueen is a character who moves readers in the way that, say, a more celebrated (and controversial) character, Atticus Finch does: she is an example quiet courage and dignity, a brave soul who does what she feels she must and faces the challenges her life presents not without flinching, but instead with strength gathered from within. Dykeman does a fine job of taking us through the events of Lydia’s life and showing us that heroism is sometimes standing up for what is right. Continue reading
A white male American poet pretends to be an Asian poet and gets work accepted that has been rejected when submitted under his American identity. This behavior says something about culture that is painfully clear despite well meaning attempts to deconstruct it.
Yi-Fen Chou, a.k.a. Michael Derrick Hudson (image courtesy Poetry Foundation)
As I have done before, I will begin with an anecdote:
In the middle of the last decade of the last century I applied for a number of college and university teaching jobs. I kept getting to “semi- finalist” or “finalist” status without getting offers. Finally one department chair agreed to talk to me OTR. The problem, he explained in a series of private emails, was that the push for diversity made a white male candidate like me, even though well qualified, Plan C (usually, for college teaching posts, there are three finalists). If the other candidates who met diversity needs for the department/university turned the post down, I might get an offer. Continue reading
Ron Rash’s Saints at the River has at its center a powerful story about the struggle of Southern mountain subculture to reconcile itself with the “greater” culture….
Saints at the River by Ron Rash (image courtesy Goodreads)
Ron Rash’s novel Saints at the River has been widely acclaimed as a novel of power and insight in its depiction of Southern mountain culture. It is certainly that. Rash’s tale of a child drowned in a wild mountain river and the struggle over the rights of parents to retrieve the child’s body from the river while protecting the river’s environmental (and historical) significance has moments of resonance for any reader aware of the struggle between homogenization and cultural diversity.
But the novel has, alas, some real limitations, too. The ancillary plot lines (mountain reared news photographer daughter alienated from father, newspaper reporter struggling to write story about drowned girl due to reminders of his own daughter’s death, budding romance between reporter and photographer complicated by both characters’ pasts) are, despite Rash’s efforts to give them more than average depth, average and predictable.
Saints at the River is, then, at best a flawed effort. The question then become, do its strengths outweigh its weaknesses? Continue reading
Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina is a compelling read, a powerful look at life among working class Southerners, and what is known in the vernacular as a “hot mess” – a beautiful work in spite of its flaws….
Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison (image courtesy Goodreads)
One of the blurbs for Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina likens its narration to that of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Don’t be fooled. There is little about Ruth Ann Boatwright, known within her family as Bone, that will remind readers of Scout Finch only in a certain feistiness at given moments. Both characters possess a certain headlong quality that can seem endearing. But Bone Boatwright and Scout Finch have so little in common in terms of their life experiences that any likeness between them as characters or as narrators is superficial at best.
Astute readers will also note that, like Mockingbird, Bastard Out of Carolina has structural flaws that have been glossed over rather than solved. The novel rambles, often needlessly, and smacks of having been pieced together from previous drafts, a short story (or perhaps a group of stories) – and not always smoothly. Finally, there are, by various accounts, semi-autobiographical elements in this work. As one reads Bastard Out of Carolina, frequently one runs into passages that have more the raw feel of the author’s journals rather than the polished feel of fictionalized experience. Continue reading
Tom Doyle’s excellent book on Paul McCartney during the Wings years reveals a Paul most don’t know very well: a conflicted, sometimes lost, boy/man trying to carry on as a musician while also trying to be husband/father and rock star/cultural agitator at the same time – until traumas of very different types made him settle into adulthood and, ultimately, self-acceptance.
Sir Paul McCartney, my favorite Beatle (image courtesy Wikimedia)
Much of what the average rock aficionado knows about the break up of the Beatles comes from either Jann Wenner’s interviews with John Lennon or from casual attention during those years to news reports about the legal hassles the Fabs endured while extricating themselves from their partnership in Apple. Like any break up, personal or professional, (and this was both the severing of an indescribably successful musical collaboration and the splintering of friends who’d been almost inseparable since childhood), the Beatles’ demise was messy and hurtful for all involved.
Tom Doyle’s superb book Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970’s fell into my hands as a birthday present from my beloved sister a few days ago and I dropped my usual reading to devour it, both because I wanted to make sure my sister knew I appreciated her thoughtfulness and because I will read anything written with something approaching competence about The Beatles generally and Paul McCartney specifically. Hell, I even read the incompetent stuff.
This book is as good as any I’ve ever read on these subjects. Kudos to Tom Doyle and to my sister Janis. Continue reading
We now have not even close to definitive proof that William Shakespeare smoked marijuana and perhaps used cocaine. Good thing Francis Bacon or Christopher Marlowe wrote those plays, huh…?
Bill Shakespeare, mellow dude (image courtesy Wikimedia)
Busy with a lot of stuff for school and behind a little on my reading these days, though by the weekend I’ll have an essay on an excellent book on Paul McCartney during the Wings years.
So today we talk about Shakespeare. Actually we talk about Shakespeare on crack. Well, maybe not crack but cocaine – and pot.
Wow. Just wow….
According to that bastion of journalism USA Today, a study published in July suggests that Shakespeare may have smoked marijuana and cocaine. The researchers, from the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, after examining shards of clay smoking pipes from Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon property with a new type of spectrometry, report that traces of cannabis and Peruvian cocaine have been found in those pipes. The pipes may/may not have have been used by Shakespeare, but the pipes date from the early 17th century and come from Shakespeare’s property. So possibly… Continue reading
Murder and Bombs is the sort of thrill ride that any reader would be glad to add their collection of what we know fondly as “beach reads.”
Murder and Bombs by Greg Stene (image courtesy Amazon)
Greg Stene’s latest crime novel, Murder and Bombs, covers lots of ground despite taking place exclusively in and around Tucson, Arizona. It takes in Mexican drug cartels, the Tucson police, mad bombers, covert government operations, love and marriage, and the meaning of brotherhood. It does all this at a not-quite-breakneck pace, one that rolls along fast enough to keep the pages turning, slow enough to allow Stene to develop his characters, build suspense, and give all this craziness enough context and background to make it plausible.
Oh yes, and The Thing makes an appearance. Wouldn’t want to forget that. Continue reading
V. L. Brunskill’s Waving Backwards is a bildungsroman with a twist; the heroine must find her way forward by finding her way backwards….
Waving Backwards: A Savannah Novel by V. L. Brunskill
I wrote last week about Lee Smith’s excellent bildungsroman Black Mountain Breakdown. In that essay I defended Smith’s work, which falls clearly in the realm of what is sometimes unfairly dismissed as “lifestyle fiction” as a work of considerable power and a bildungsroman with a true twist: its protagonist collapses when she encounters her existential moment.
V. L. Brunskill’s Waving Backwards is similar to Smith’s novel in that its young female protagonist is trying to reach her existential moment, to come to terms with who she is as a person and what being who she is means. It’s also similar to Smith’s novel in that Waving Backwards might be dismissed as “lifestyle fiction,” as another example of what is often described as that peculiarly Southern form of lifestyle fiction called the “Mama and them” book. Such works are invariably coming-of-age tales, usually with female protagonists, that look at the eccentricities of growing up in a Southern family.
Brunskill’s novel is certainly about “Mama and them,” but in Waving Backwards the theme of “Mama and them” gets taken places that readers have likely never considered. Continue reading
Black Mountain Breakdown is a fine novel with depths that many readers, whether they are those who prefer what is dismissed as “lifestyle lit” or those who would dismiss Smith’s work too easily as such, may not see thanks to their biases…..
Black Mountain Breakdown by Lee Smith (image courtesy Goodreads)
In writing a series of essays last summer about the late Joe David Bellamy’s interesting look at the state of litfic in the late 1990’s, I addressed one piece to Bellamy’s celebration of what he termed “super fiction.” Bellamy saw it as a great leap forward for literature – I was pretty meh about it. That’s not going to surprise anyone who has read my work (I’d like to thank all eleven of you at this time) as I am a pretty staunch defender of realism as literary style in all its permutations. Bellamy is generally a generous and thoughtful writer about literary fiction and its practitioners, but in the section of Literary Luxuries that I wrote about in the essay linked above, he refers to what he terms “lifestyle fiction.” He is dismissive of this type of litfic (written, primarily, we should note, by women authors such as Ann Beattie, Ellen Gilchrist, and Lee Smith) as not experimental enough, not ground breaking enough, not, it would seem, challenging enough to readers. Bellamy goes further and tacitly links this genre of writing to reactionary thinking such as that which propels American conservative politics. It’s damning criticism, and, at least for its best writers, unfair. While there is in the work of these writers, of whom Lee Smith is an example, much of the lifestyle of the worlds they live in (there is a domestic life – particularly women’s domestic life – element to the work of these authors that is sometimes derisively referred to as the “Mama and them” theme), their treatments of their chosen subjects, while sometimes unappealing to some readers (particularly males), rings true and has the power of realism. For the reader who appreciates the work of Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte, both of whom certainly explored the domestic lives of women, the line from those authors to writers like Smith should seem clear. Continue reading
Salinger and Hemingway got be be friends in Hemingway’s favorite context for male bonding: war. What kinds of friends they were says something about each man….
Ernest Hemingway doing what writers do (image courtesy Wikimedia)
Nicolaus Mills, a professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College, is currently writing a new book on Hemingway – just what we need, right? But Mills’ focus, Hemingway’s life during the Second World War, has yielded some fascinating information not known to the general public. For instance, Hemingway entered recently liberated Paris in 1944 not in the company of American troops but instead with a group of French partisans.
That’s the sort of thing one expects from the American Byron, of course, but Mills gives us an even more interesting bit of literary history: during that period in 1944 J.D. Salinger, he whose most famous character called Frederic Henry and A Farewell to Arms “phony,” struck up (cultivated is more likely) a friendship that lasted for at least a few years.
The poster boy for schoolyard style machismo in all things and the ultimate alienated loner punk walk into a bar…. Continue reading
Go Set a Watchman, to use a tired description, is what it is: a sixty year-old first novel that its author, with guidance from a thoughtful editor, revised into a beloved classic of American literature.
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (image courtesy Goodreads)
I wrote about Harper Lee’s “new” novel, Go Set a Watchman, a couple of weeks ago and discussed the problematic history of its discovery and subsequent publication. At that time I wondered whether Lee was able to discern how her decision (upheld by the Alabama Supreme Court) might affect her literary legacy.
I’ve read the novel now and can offer two observations: 1) if one is to appreciate Watchman, one must approach it as what it is – a 60 year old work that might have been published as a work of its time; 2) had Watchman been published in 1957 when Lee first shopped it to publishers, it would have been reviewed as an uneven first novel by a young author who showed flashes of promise but as a work was ultimately a failure.
It certainly wouldn’t have sold over a million copies and elicited backlash like this. Continue reading
The art world can’t help but be pleased with the efforts of its victims — there’s money to be made, after all. But there are those of us who watch these developments with increasing alarm, wondering if the art world will ever wake up. The saving grace is that art’s machinations generally have little effect on the rest of the globe. That may be the reason that art — especially today’s art — “is the only human activity that does not lead to killing.” Contemporary art has made itself so meaningless that nobody can be bothered to pull the trigger over it. – Alex Melamid
On Kawara (image courtesy Wikimedia)
I am almost finished with Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, but rather than rush through the novel’s ending and write hurriedly about it, I wanted a few days to ponder it since I feel it deserves thoughtful consideration. I’ll write about it in my next essay over the weekend.
That, of course, leaves me with the need to find a topic for this essay. I have two, and after careful consideration (that sound you hear is the coin landing on the table), I’ve decided to write about an interesting piece from Huffington Post that is yet another complaint about the problems facing contemporary art. The piece focuses on visual art, but I think the same is true for literature and music, so much of what the author says applies to art in the broad sense of the term’s usage.
That problem is, perhaps explained by using terms that will set of alarm bells for all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons: “production for use” and “production for profit.”
But first a few words about On Kawara who is sort of a poster child for what the title of this essay is on about….
Southerners have trouble ruling out the possible. What happens to a man to whom all things seem possible and every course of action open? Nothing of course…. – Walker Percy
The Last Gentleman by Walker Percy (image courtesy Goodreads)
At long last the time has come to talk about Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman both on its own merits as a great Southern novel and in relation to my novel The New Southern Gentleman and about Percy’s influence on both me and on that novel.
As promised, let me talk first about my relationship with Mr. Percy. In 1984 I was a doctoral student completing a creative dissertation which became (several years later) the novel mentioned above. I was in contact with an editor at one of the major publishing houses in New York who liked my work and kept pushing me to write something/anything that would please the new masters of publishing, the corporate entities who were swallowing up the old family owned publishing houses left and right and for whose decision making power they had shifted from editors to marketing departments. He liked my manuscript, but he figured it would not fly with marketing (he was right; the novel only appeared years later from a small, independent litfic house in California). Because of the similarity in the title of my work and the title of Mr. Percy’s masterpiece, he wrote to me and suggested I write to Walker Percy. Continue reading
Our choices of favorite books, those we go to time and again for pleasure, for solace, for inspiration, for – comfort – may be inexplicable, even to us….
You can bet a certain Mr. Twain will be on the menu of my literary comfort foods…
As I continue my rather too leisurely reading of Walker Percy’s classic The Last Gentleman, I find myself scrambling for an essay topic. Luckily, last week I was helped out by my friend Sam who insisted, rightly, that I wrote something about the new Harper Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman. Then I ran into an article at The Nation which allowed me to discuss two of the current movements in literary fiction. That made for another nice essay to allow me more time to finish the Walker Percy – which I didn’t do.
Hence this essay – more dithering until I get back on track writing about items from the 2015 reading list.
I’ve been thinking for a couple of weeks about this issue, literature as intellectual comfort food. In fact, I’ve already decided that for the 2016 reading list will be devoted to a list composed of at least some of my favorite books. As anyone who reads my drivel is aware, my tastes run to literary fiction. In past years I have also read compendia of scholarly essays, naturalists’ journals, histories, science works, and even children’s books. So here is a list of five of my comfort food books. These will certainly appear in next year’s list where I’ll write about them in more detail, so for now I’ll offer simply brief explanations of why I return to them again and again. Continue reading
Complete detachment or complete engagement – as Billy Joel observed, it all depends upon your appetite….
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner (image courtesy Goodreads)
I am still making my way, rather too leisurely probably, through Walker Percy’s marvelous novel The Last Gentleman (about which I will have much to say, since I corresponded with Mr. Percy while completing my first book, a novel, The New Southern Gentleman). I’m also awaiting delivery of my copy of about which I’ll write some more once I’ve read it and digested its what promises to be awesomely hyped mediocrity.
That left me casting about for something to write about for this essay, and I found it by stumbling upon an essay in The Nation about the latest trend (counter trend might be another way of viewing it) in literary fiction: novels composed of the musings of completely detached narrators rambling on in some sort of Onionesque version of the literary equivalent of a “nattering nabob of negativitsm” that the vice-crook of the Nixon administration once was on about.
I think this trend says something (interesting? troubling? useful? useless?) about American culture – particularly the culture of creative writing programs and the sorts of literature they produce. It is also important to note why the trend in European literature has been for an almost diametrically opposed trend in litfic from across the Atlantic. Finally, and this is mighty important to remember, as Bullwinkle would say, none of this may be anything but footnotes in the great narrative where The Dude abides and one should know the first rule of Fight Club. Continue reading
The soon to be released Harper Lee novel Go Set a Watchman will be an interesting experiment: a sequel that seeks to explode the mythology surrounding her only other work, the ubiquitously revered celebration of high-minded Southernness, To Kill a Mockingbird. How that will go down with the myriad Atticus Finch acolytes is what will make or break both the novel and perhaps Lee’s reputation as a writer….
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (image courtesy HarperCollins, NY Times)
By now anyone within reach of media of one stripe or another knows that Harper Lee, the long reclusive and now aged and fragile author of one of, if not the the most beloved of American novels, To Kill a Mockingbird, is now, at long last, bringing out a second novel, a work which is both a sequel to Mockingbird and, at least in the minds of early reviewers, a sort of rebuttal of that myth of Southern race relations.
It seems a daring act – but as history shows, Go Set a Watchman is not a “new” work. That raises questions about Lee’s motivation for publishing her novel (which is, it seems clear, the antecedent of Mockingbird). Is this the act of a woman coming to terms with her mortality and wanting to “set the record straight,” to coin a phrase? Or is this what some have claimed, a manipulation of an aged, fragile woman by cynical forces?
However, such questions, and the arguments they have fostered, seem, at best, pointless now. Go Set a Watchman will be released 07/14/2015. And Chapter 1 of the novel is already available from numerous sources for those seeking a preview. What remains, then, is to consider the work – which probably must be done both on its own merits and in terms of its relationship with its iconic descendant. Continue reading
Reading Christopher Moore’s Fool is rather like watching Hercules: the Legendary Journeys or Xena: Warrior Princess; that willing suspension of disbelief Coleridge was on about is absolutely necessary.
A veer away from the 2015 reading list for a book a friend has been after me to take in for some time. Fool is author Christopher Moore‘s mashup of Shakespeare whose primary focus is answering the never asked question: what would King Lear be like if told from the point of view of Lear’s Fool? Moore’s answer to this question would be a story filled with lots of bawdy, occasionally tasteless, joking about power, sex, treason, madness, and love – all Shakespearean topics, granted – as well as love as a higher end of human endeavor – another Shakespearean theme.
In other words, it’s pretty much as accurate a take on Shakespeare as you’re likely to find. Which is to say it’s got the Shakespeare pretty much wrong and pretty much right at the same time.
That whole “…tale told by an idiot/Signifying nothing” explanation might be apt, one might say. Continue reading