CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature

The State of Literary Art IV: fiction that is super – or maybe just superfluous…

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 herehere 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

Lucky 13

A 9/11 observance for the disenchanted…

It’s a sunny flag day here in USA Land,

a day when we think that our moments of silence say

that we honor the blood and flame clouds

which were human beings before the towers went the way

of the dodo, and Pan-Am Airways.

Continue reading

CATEGORY: WordsDay

Book Review: Mercedes Wore Black, by Andrea Brunais

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.

Continue reading

ArtSunday

Tove Jansson’s Summer Book: imagining reality

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

WordsDay: Literature

Ian McEwan’s Atonement: very good – but that gimmicky ending…

 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

CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature2

John McPhee and Immersion Journalism: The Survival of the Bark Canoe

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

ArtSunday: LIterature

The state of literary art II: of literary magazines…

One of the things an aspiring writer learns quickly is that literary magazine editors are a quirky lot…but that there are lots of literary magazines these days….

cover, Fiction International (image courtesy Fiction International website)

(For previous essays in this series, look here.)

My second essay on Joe David Bellamy’s interesting look at the literary community at the end of the last century, Literary Luxuries: American Writing at the End of the Millennium, is Bellamy’s essay on his time as a literary magazine editor (and founder).

The essay is really about two issues – issues that relate to the politics behind literary fiction and its outlets and the politics surrounding the relationship between creative writing programs and English departments. Bellamy’s essay is worth a look because it reminds us of the evolution of English departments, the rise of creative writing programs, the role of “little” or literary magazines in the move of serious literary work (both fiction and poetry) out of the mainstream, and how the Internet has allowed a renaissance of sorts for literary magazines many of whom were almost done in by publishing costs before the Web came along to save them (and allow the rise of many new journals including the one here at Scholars and Rogues). Continue reading

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

Scholars and Rogues Fiction: “The Diner” by Mark Sumioka

There on the coffee table was the colorful stack of lottery Scratcher tickets.  I leaned forward at the edge of the couch, the adrenaline from the gamble swirling through me.  I had coin-scraped their surfaces in jagged angles, though some Scratchers, the ones at the beginning of the session, had been scored in perfect shapes – ovals, circles, or rectangles.

That was when the fever had just begun.

Now I saw the pile of lottery tickets and their frayed bits of grey-black residue and was aching for more.  It filled me with memories and sadness.  It went beyond money and entertainment. Continue reading

CATEGORY: WordsDay

Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain: War and Peace for middlebrows…

Frazier’s historical novel was a great success even though it is rather indifferent both as history and as a novel…

Rivers Parting by Shirley Barker (image courtesy Amazon)

A confessions of sorts.

I have always been something of a fan of the historical novel. My interest began probably with Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in my early teens and has been primed occasionally over the years with the occasionally discovered tasteful or tasteless gem (many courtesy of my late and dearly missed Aunt Barbara). Through her taste for middlebrow lit I wound up reading (without parental consent, of course) Forever Amber which led me to Moll Flanders and then to A Journal of the Plague Year (I’d read Robinson Crusoe years earlier as a child).  So in a weird way, the same woman who’d schooled me in serious lit by constantly forcing me to take another volume from the Harvard Classics each time I visited her (she sometimes had me read from the works to her after I’d finished mowing her yard and was enjoying a glass of lemonade or iced tea) also, in passing along her old book club selections to my mother gave me an introduction into what Middle America found fascinating reading from the 1950s through 1970s. Continue reading

Scholars and Rogues Fiction: “The Moments That Matter” by James Gardner

It was just after seven.  Dianna Reynolds sat in the front seat of a faded green Mercury Sable with half a bottle of vodka held tightly between her legs.  She lit a cigarette with a pack of matches off the dashboard and blew smoke out the open window.  Randy Whitehead leaned against the hood of the car eating spaghetti and meatballs out of a can with a plastic fork.  The gentle sound of the river and a smell of fish filled the evening air.  Randy Whitehead finished the spaghetti and threw the empty can into the trees.  He licked off the plastic fork and put it in his shirt pocket.  Then he walked to the side of the car and stuck his head inside.

“Give me a beer, Dianna,” he said holding out his hand.  She reached into a red ice chest and handed him a can.

“Here,” she said indifferently.

Randy Whitehead glanced at the bottle of vodka.  “You better slow down on that shit if you want it to last you.” Continue reading

Music and Popular Culture

Popular Music Scholarship IV: Pop Stars and Politics

Q: Should pop stars express their political opinions and take political action? A: Only if they’re informed, concerned citizens…

 

Bono of U2, pop star and political activist (image courtesy Wikimedia)

(For previous essays in this series, look here, herehere, and here.)

For the period covered by the book of essays I’ve been discussing over the last few weeks, The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Protest, the “post-Classic Rock Era” we might call it, the political/protest activities of pop stars have not had the same resonance or gravitas as they did during that era of protests against segregation, the Vietnam War, and environmental pollution/destruction (the role of classic rock era stars in the women’s movement is, at best, questionable – unless those stars were women, of course).

This week, in the next to last essay in this series, we look at four essays, all in one way or another related to the idea that, to contradict one of the major singers of that classic rock era, sometimes it’s about  the singer, the song – and something else entirely .

The essay titles themselves reveal much about what their authors think of the last 35 years or so. Deena Weinstein’s “Rock protest songs: so many and so few”; Jerry Rodnitsky’s “The decline and rebirth of folk protest music”; Mark Willhardt’s “Available rebels and folk authenticities: Michelle Shocked and Billy Bragg”; and, finally, John Street’s “The pop star as politician: from Belafonte to Bono, from creativity to conscience” offer us a range of explanations for why pop or rock or folk singers have/have not gotten involved in protests against social or political injustice. Some, like Weinstein, take the long view, others, like Willhardt, look closely at a couple of artists. In all of these essays, however, much the same conclusions are reached: in one way or another protest has, too often, been subsumed or marginalized by the co-option of the protester – especially if that protester is a musical celebrity. Continue reading

Scholars and Rogues Fiction: “The Anti-” by Shae Krispinsky

Strength of will got me to Brooklyn on a drizzling Saturday afternoon. Dreadlocked kids in torn, paint-spattered jeans lugged crates of art supplies, rolls of butcher paper and large blank canvases  through the oilslicked puddles on the sidewalks between their dorm buildings and their parents’ SUVs. Dutifully following behind, parents carried more practical items: lamps, bundles of shiny plastic hangers, extra long sheet sets and grocery sacks full of enough snack crackers and cereal to last several weeks. Traveling light, I had only a large duffel bursting with clothes, some books, my journal and my laptop. Anything to get away from home as quickly as possible.

When my mom called the following Monday, I told her I had found my people, my place, which wasn’t entirely a lie. I felt more at home amongst these tattooed, tortured artists than I ever did in the cultural wasteland of cow-country western Pennsylvania where I grew up, but still, I knew I didn’t belong here. As a writer at an art school, just like at home, I was an outcast. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

The state of literary art I: who is an artist?

American literary fiction over the last 50 years has been, it seems, in a struggle to find an audience…

Literary Luxuries: American Writing at the End of the Millennium by Joe David Bellamy (image courtesy University of Missouri Press)

Another book from the 2014 reading list composed of essays. This one, Literary Luxuries: American Writing at the End of the Millenium, is a collection of essays by writer, writing teacher, and litfic cheerleader Joe David Bellamy. Since this is a book of essays that range over a number of issues confronting the literary community, it seems logical to look at Bellamy’s book in sections. So, as I’ve done with a book of scholarly essays on popular music as protest, I’ll be looking at this work over a number of weeks. This will allow me to share Bellamy’s wide ranging discussions of issues such as  of support for the arts (particularly literature), writers’ conferences, creative writing programs, and styles of literary fiction.

Bellamy has a lot to say about each of these areas (and others) and his opinions are – interesting might be the best word. I agree with some of his assessment of the state of litfic, some of it I would say probably needs updating, and some of it smacks of his personal biases. That last is not necessarily a bad thing – except when he resorts to trying to make literature style an object of political analysis. Continue reading

Scholars and Rogues Fiction: “Nut Case” by Samuel Vargo

Nut Case. That’s what we call him.

It fits. He’s crazy. And dangerous.

Don’t get too close to Nut Case, you can hear him ticking – clicking down to another big explosion. And you certainly don’t want to be near him when it occurs.

Nut Case carries a handgun, some small-caliber thingamajig that he keeps in his pocket. It’s a concealed weapon; I guess that’s the “legal” name for it, but actually, its only function is to put holes through people. And even though it’s a small caliber, don’t think it can’t kill someone. It’s ready made for fatalities, alright. Yep, that gun is very well concealed on his person. I don’t know if I actually consider Nut Case a person, though, since I see him more as a monster – but that’s the legal name for the way he carries that gun – `on his person’. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Waiting for Nothing (More): Tom Kromer’s Singular (and Single) Masterpiece

Kromer’s novel of The Great Depression was his only fully achieved work…

Waiting for Nothing by Tom Kromer (image courtesy Goodreads)

I realize I have been remiss.

Despite two updates to my 2014 reading list (see here and here) I have still more books that I’ve added. So once I finish this essay on a rather singular work of literature from The Great Depression, I suppose it’s incumbent upon me to write a short piece to still further update my reading list.

But writing about the books themselves is ever so much more enjoyable, so let’s get to that first, shall we?

Waiting for Nothing by Tom Kromer is one of those books that rattles around in the halls of academe periodically as a “lost classic.” I first encountered it in my first full time college teaching job back in 1987 at Salem College. A now “lost and by the wind grieved” colleague, Pete Jordan, asked me if I were familiar with the work. When I told him no, he thrust a copy into my hands and told me in no uncertain terms that it was a book I should know.

I took it home and read it in an evening. (That’s not a prodigious feat – the book is more a novella than a novel and the edition I reread for this essay, a very nice remounting by the University of Georgia Press, logs in at only 130 pages). It’s an alternately engrossing and wrenching narrative based on Kromer’s time as a “stiff” (the term refers to the many hobos who spent their time drifting from town to city across the country looking for work during the depths of the economic crisis in the early 1930’s). Continue reading

Scholars and Rogues Nonfiction: The Price of Ignorance by Fred Skolnik

Americans do not know very much about the world. Historically this is partly a result of distance and isolation and partly a result of arrogance. The arrogance comes into play when Americans consider the importance or relevance of what other people are doing, since it goes without saying that Americans do everything better than everyone else. Why individual Americans find it necessary to identify with the idea of America’s greatness may be sought in their need to bolster their self-esteem in the absence of personal distinction and in their feelings of insignificance in the shadow of the American Dream. The consequence of this arrogance and the ignorance it engenders may be found in the results of America’s involvement in armed conflicts around the world. Continue reading

Opening the asylum

Daffy Duck and Robin Williams will never die, not really…

Robin Williams died yesterday, and when I heard the news I immediately thought of this collection of Daffy Duck toys I keep in an old-fashioned hanging bird cage in my basement. I have kept these toys in this way for years, collecting dust in a dark room, locked away like the picture of Dorian Gray.

It’s like I have collected iconographic bits of my own particular madness and put them in a teeny jail, though I have always thought of it as a shrine to Daffy, my God of Insanity.

Continue reading

Music and Popular Culture

Popular Music Scholarship III: Music as a Function of Place

Music serves as a comment on culture – and, interestingly, that commentary can be both culture specific and universal at once…

Bob Marley in concert, 1980 (image courtesy Wikimedia)

(For previous essays in this series, look here, here, and here.)

This week’s look at the excellent scholarly discussion of popular music and protest, The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest, addresses the importance of place in the emergence of specific types of music. This section of the editor Ian Peddie’s book consists of three essays on places and music as diverse as one could ever want them to be: Jamaica and reggae, the Australian Outback and aboriginal rock, and England’s “Black Country” (the heavy industry and mining country) and the emergence of “escapist” music represented by artists as diverse (at first glance) as Led Zeppelin and drum and bass pioneer Goldie.

In some ways the most interesting, if most esoteric of these essays is “‘We have survived': popular music as a representation of Australian Aboriginal cultural loss and reclamation.” This essay explores the emergence of Aboriginal rock bands, in particular the work of a group called the Wirrinyga Band. The essayist, Peter Dunbar-Hall, notes two important things about the Aboriginals bands in Australia: first, the bands serve an important cultural function in keeping alive aboriginal languages – in fact, music from Wirrinyga Band and other Aboriginal groups is used in schools to help Aboriginal students learn their native languages and cultural history; second, the Australian government actively supports its artists and offers grants and other financial supports to artists such as the Wirrinyga Band so that they can develop, and more importantly, record their work to make both the subject matter of their songs (they sing of traditional Aboriginal subjects such as spiritual and philosophical beliefs – the “Dreamtime” (a central concept in Aboriginal Animism) and the relationship of Aboriginal groups (the Wirrinyga Band are members of the Yolngu) to mainstream Australian culture.  Continue reading

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

Scholars and Rogues Nonfiction: “Exit Wounds” by Travis Slusser

The exit wound is always larger than the entrance. Well, not always- bullets don’t obey rules but in my case this isn’t a bullet we’re talking about. This is tens of thousands of bullets. This is tons of ordnance dropped from the sky and buried along roadsides waiting mute and blind and seething for a convoy to roll past. My wound is a tiny white crescent moon on the web of my right hand. The white crescent of Islam, a symbol more powerful and holy and frightening than anything I could wrap my homogenized and X-Boxed American head around. It was a hot shell casing from the breech of the man’s rifle next to me. A Major assigned to train the Afghan police; he emptied all 7 of his magazines within minutes of the engagement beginning. That’s how I came to be out of the truck and in the midst of the dust and chaos of my first firefight. The Major and our squad leader next to him had gotten trigger-happy and were now calling out for fresh mags. I grabbed a bandolier off the back of the seat in front of me and ducked out the armored door of the humvee, hustling the ammo one truck length ahead to them, “exposing myself repeatedly to intense small-arms fire” as the report would later word so eloquently. I joined these two and gave them some covering fire as they reloaded, popping off about 20 rounds. At this point the searing hot brass landed right in the web of my firing hand and I yelled and shook it violently, dislodging the cursed thing, then went back to shooting up the hillside across the narrow valley. Continue reading