WordsDay: Literature

Maeve Binchy and the well written happy ending…

Maeve Binchy’s fictional world is one where those who try to do good turn out well…as for the others….

Maeve Binchy, Nights of Rain and Stars (image courtesy Goodreads)

As I’ve made clear by now to any who read my essays on the books I read, I have devoted 2014 to trying works outside my normal range of reading interests. As a result I’ve read some popular YA literature (and evoked a storm of controversy), tried a couple of of works by the most and celebrated of the recently anointed and highly admired “genre literati” (and found them interestingif not as arresting as some of my colleagues do), and taken a look at the power that formula fiction seems to have on the reading public.

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

The most beautiful college campuses in America: 10 thoughts on a new list

There’s a new list out ranking the 20 most beautiful college campuses in America. These things are always subjective, and they can start more arguments than they settle, but I have to admit that this is a not-bad list.

I haven’t been to all the honored campuses, but I am familiar with several of them. Heck, I hold degrees from two of them.

Here’s the list, then I’ll have a few comments.

1. University of Virginia Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

The final, hopefully completely updated 2014 reading list…

“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

Book-Review

The Song or the Singer? Trying to Understand the Success of Nicholas Sparks

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.”

And so we proceed. Continue reading

Ello

Ello: some interesting follow recommendations for our new social network

Watercolor 2012, by @laura_d

There’s been some back and forth here in the last couple of weeks about Ello, the new social network. If you’re on Ello, or are thinking of joining, here are some people you might want to investigate and possibly follow.

Let’s start with the S&R folks. @docdenny is, as you know, god of macro photography, and lately he’s been experimenting with some new toys and techniques that visually bridge the space between photography and painting.

Our boy @sirpaulsbuddy is fighting the good fight. Continue reading

CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature

It’s a Southern thing…Shelby Foote’s Love in a Dry Season

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.

So now, to help you understand this assessment, here’s another story.  Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

When the cloth makes the man: J.F. Powers’s Morte D’Urban

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.

Am I glad I did. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Ben Ames Williams’s The Strange Woman and Art as Commerce….

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.

I have written on multiple occasions about the American reading public’s interests, partly because I have wanted to understand the literary marketplace better myself, partly because as a writer who now lives in the purgatory assigned to the vast majority of those who write “literary fiction,” I have often looked with envy at those who have been able to navigate the labyrinth of American publishing in ways that have given them great success – both popular and financial (let me note here that no artist is averse to making money, no matter how much he/she may protest that art should be an act of illumination for humanity and money be damned). Continue reading

CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature2

The State of Literary Art VI: The Final Frontiers…

In the end Joe David Bellamy’s Literary Luxuries reads now more like an elegy for a now lost literary landscape…and a lost friend to literature….

Literary Luxuries by Joe David Bellamy (image courtesy University of Missouri Press)

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

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

Arts & Literature

Peter Handke, the Nobel Prize, and the Weight of the World…

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

Book-Review

Book Review: The Day the Mirror Cried by Saundra Kelley

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

The Arts

The State of Literary Art V: Theory Schmeory…

Do we need a theory of creative writing? Would that save higher education? Uh, nope…

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

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.

Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

I read books because I need to know … so much more than I do now

As I age, what I read and why has changed markedly over time

ArtSunday: LIteratureIf you’re a reader, you probably have a list of “fave” books. Or of books you found “influential.” Or of books you liked because each told “a good story.” Or maybe because the books were filled with vampires and such.

I’m surrounded by book listers. I lurk on a listserv of really bright people, and one of the topics du jour is “what’s your book list.” (Thanks to them, I’ve picked up several to add to my own list.)

Jim Booth, one of my fellow co-founders of Scholars & Rogues, compiles a list of books each year and reviews them here. (He’s done more than 50 reviews this year alone.) A faculty colleague has from time to time posted outside his office a list of “books I spent time with this summer.”

I never thought much about book lists.

Then the Time of My Great Disenchantment with Mega-Corporate-Run Journalism began to descend on me about seven years ago. I realized that the grist of daily journalism no longer dealt at length or in depth with the gnawing questions I need answered:

How does the world work? Why does it work that way? What are the consequences of the answers to the first two questions?

So why isn’t mainstream journalism as practiced these days telling me what I need to know? After all, journalism has been billed as “the first rough draft of history.” Continue reading

Book-Review

Book Review: St. Nic, Inc. by S.R. Staley

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

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