A darling of literary fiction can actually write a pretty intriguing book -keep the dictionary handy…
To move from the wildly popular Hunger Games to Room Temperature by Nicholson Baker is quite a leap for any reader – but, I’ve made it. So this entry from the 2014 reading list is an essay that will look at what characterizes literary fiction. And how it can be both rewarding and a little maddening to engage with a master practitioner of the form.
Of course, the chief characteristic of literary fiction is that it has that amorphous (and arguable) quality known as literary merit. As a rule, the sorts of things that give literary merit are complex characterizations, realistic situations and emotional expressions, and some attempt to get at that problematic goal called truth. (The truth in this case falling more likely into that category of activity that Aristotle terms phronesis, or ” gaining cultural truth,” rather than scientific/observational discovery which the great philosopher terms theoria.) But I suppose it would only be fair to Aristotle to note that he does say that art (which great literature is) is itself another activity, poiesis. Okay, enough of this – I’m beginning to sound like Nicholson Baker. Continue reading →
The real “hunger games” are those played by people who already have much (maybe too much) trying to figure out how to get more…
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (image courtesy Goodreads)
Nothing that I can possibly say will make any difference in how the majority of readers feel about Suzanne Collins’ mega-successful novel The Hunger Games. That said, having read this representation of the cynicism that pervades the publishing/film/corporate tie-in mentality of our “arts culture,” as I enter into this discussion, I alert readers that I have, after due consideration, come to two conclusions about The Hunger Games: 1) this book is NOT a critique of our culture in any real sense; 2) this book is aimed at children – and cynically exploits them.
First, perhaps, we should consider the cultural milieu into which The Hunger Games was born.
The unexpected and overwhelming success of J.K. Rowling’s fantasy series about youthful wizards, the Harry Potter books, unleashed a torrent of publishing (and book marketing) aimed at a newly identified demographic: “young adult” (YA) readers. (Perhaps the most telling aspect of Rowling’s story is that the publisher who chose to accept her work for the American market was Scholastic, a children’s publisher of classics such as Weekly Reader.) Continue reading →
Dear Parents: if your son goes to college, joins a fraternity and screws up, you could lose your home.
Do I have your attention yet?
How many times in my adult life have I heard this?
YOU were in a fraternity?
Doc Sammy, in another life.
Yes I was. Theta Chi, Gamma Omicron chapter, Wake Forest University. I know, I don’t fit the stereotype. Neither did my chapter. Sure, we had parties. We drank, sometimes more than was strictly healthy. We were appropriately hormonal for a pack of 18-22 year-old guys. We were noisy and obnoxious and occasionally rude, especially when singing a rousing round of “Roll Out Your Mother” during Parents Weekend football games.
But consider this. Theta Chi, during Spring Rush of 1980, was the first place in my life I ever heard anyone talk about diversity. Today, of course, diversity is a critical concept in corporations, in schools, in government, everywhere. We are becoming a more diverse nation that promotes equal rights and standing for people of all races, for women, and finally for the LGBT community.
I’ve been paid by large corporations to develop diversity training, in fact, and what a wonderful irony that my first introduction to the importance of the concept came in a fraternity. Continue reading →
Initially I wasn’t sure what to make of this use of Native American imagery. The man wearing the jacket was white, and at first he didn’t want me to photograph his design when I asked if I could. “I don’t want someone to steal my visual ideas,” he said.
In which we learn that saving the world is not so very different from selling shoes when one stops and thinks about it…
Larissa Takes Flight by Teresa Milbrodt (image courtesy Goodreads)
The always interesting Teresa Milbrodt’s latest story collection,Larissa Takes Flight, is what the publisher calls a “pastiche novel.” I know something about these having published a couple of my own, so I feel relatively qualified to ramble on a little about this work in my own inimitable, if slightly eccentric style.
Larissa – and her adventures – cover two wide swaths of American culture: Milbrodt’s own special blend of the mundanity of current American life with the epic (or, perhaps, mock-epic) and legendary which one writer colleague has called “Midwestern Mythic” as well as the author’s take on life as part of that sociological group we most often see referred to as “Gen X.”
The book is composed of a series of 58 flash fictions (though some are better considered short-short stories) that cover most of the areas of daily experience in the 21st century (“Larissa Loses Her Job,” “Larissa Gets a Credit Card,” “Larissa and Computer Problems”). Of course, given that “Midwestern Mythic” thing I mentioned, there’s plenty of unusual goings on (“Larissa and the Closet Monster,” “Larissa and Vampires,” “Larissa and the Genie”). Continue reading →
IABC Communicator of the Year has a pattern of bad behavior. I’m not sure “I’m sorry” is enough.
We all screw up. When we do, it’s our responsibility to acknowledge it and apologize to those our mistake in someway damaged, hurt, disadvantaged or inconvenienced. Hopefully we learn and move on, never repeating the mistake.
But sometimes … sometimes apologies are hard to accept. I’m not just talking about faux-apologies like we heard recently from First Idiot Ted Nugent, either. I’m talking about apparently honest, heartfelt apologies that accept the blame and make no attempt to excuse the bad behavior. Continue reading →
A cyclops and an odyssey reveal that life and coffee turn out to be better when richer and more exotic…
Teresa Milbrodt writes in a genre that a fellow author calls “Midwestern Mythic.” Her recent novel, The Patron Saint of Unattractive People, certainly fits her genre well. We meet multiple cyclops (maybe cyclopes), go on an odyssey, find a miracle, and even visit a pub with the all too weightily Homeric name The Three-Headed Dog. As in her first book, Bearded Women, Teresa Milbrodt’s The Patron Saint of Unattractive Women explores the discovery of what it means to be “different” – and to accept being different as normal.
The unnamed protagonist, a woman of 37 who is a cyclops by birth and a coffee barista by – well, maybe by birth, too. An only child, she lives with her difficult parents – her father is an especially adamant sort who has largely lost his sight to glaucoma and yet is sure he sees things clearly (yeah, he’s a sort of an anti-Tiresias) and her mother is – I guess you wouldn’t be wrong to call her a hybrid of Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, and Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s spouse. The protagonist, like any good cyclops, spends a lot of her time thinking she’d just like to be left alone. Continue reading →
Daily editorials, striving to not piss off anyone, have achieved ‘terminal neutrality’
Who — or what — killed the great American editorial? Wasn’t there a time when great newspaper editorials regularly thundered and whispered, sighed and screamed, were outraged or outraged others?
Paul Greenberg, the editorial-page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and a 1969 Pulitzer Prize winner, poses these questions on the website of the Association of Opinion Journalists.
Greenberg calls the forces that murdered the American newspaper editorial “as impersonal and characterless as many of the editorials themselves.” Among them are the goal of not pissing off anyone; “the stultifying editorial conference,” designed to drain life out of editorial positions; and hewing to “the party line or socio-economic fashion.” These forces produced, says Greenberg, “terminal neutrality.”
Although these forces had the daily newspaper editorial on its deathbed by the mid-1980s, Greenberg doesn’t reveal that I — yes, me! (gasp!) — pulled the plug on its life support. Yep, I pounded a few nails into the coffin of the daily newspaper editorial all by myself. Continue reading →
Knowing where you’re going takes all the fun out of getting there…
Mapping Utah by Denny Wilkins (image courtesy deadlines amuse me)
Kara McAllister is lost and she knows it. That’s why she is drawn to a strange Rand- McNally map of the Inter-mountain West that she finds in a Powell’s Bookstore in Portland as she is running away from a failed relationship, a successful career – and herself. How she comes to find a new relationship, a new career, and, ultimately, herself, is the central narrative of Denny Wilkins’ first novel, Mapping Utah.
It’s Kara who is the protagonist of this work. That must be understood before the novel’s achievement reveals itself. There are plenty of antagonists: bad guys who would ruin delicate wilderness areas for their petty amusements, corrupt police and politicians who sell the public trust, bad lovers who see their relationships as conveniences.
But there’s only one Kara. And it’s her deconstruction and reconstruction that drives Wilkins’ novel and makes Mapping Utah more than a ripping good yarn – which it is, by the way.
This is a book with romance, geology, action, botany, suspense, technology, politics, weightlifting. There’s a way in for almost any reader, in other words, no matter how escapist or academic or transactional (think “how to”) his/her tastes might be. Continue reading →
Women – and men – in online dating communities are acting like goddamned sociopaths. This needs to stop.
Okay, not all of you. But some of you. Men, too – I’m guessing this isn’t just women. See if you recognize yourselves below.
On multiple occasions I’ve been talking to women I met through OK Cupid. Things going great, we really seem to be hitting it off, and then we agree to meet. The woman has even been the one asking me out, in fact. I say yes, then … poof. Gone without a trace. Never hear from her again.
This is odd behavior, especially when she just asked me out, right? Am I saying yes wrong? WTF? Continue reading →
Advertising may be evil, but sometimes it’s a necessary evil.
Despite my exposure to what a colleague estimates is nearly 100 million advertising impressions as I approach seven decades of life, I am not taller, I am not more attractive, I am not thinner, and I sure as hell don’t smell much better than I did in the 1950s.
I teach in a journalism school in which more students aspire to be advertising and PR madmen and madwomen than journalists. So I think about advertising often — mostly with disbelief and frequent outrage (the righteous kind, y’know).
The disbelief: I watch an ad in which a pricey luxury sedan maneuvers at night through lanes illuminated by paper lanterns. Continue reading →
American businesses are anti-intellectual. American universities are anti-relevance. The gods help the overeducated schmuck stuck in the middle.
Hi. I’m Sam, and I’m a PhD.
For those of you who don’t know me, I have a doctorate. Communication, University of Colorado, 1999. Some days it’s the thing I have done in life that I’m most proud of. Other days I think it’s the worst mistake I ever made in my life. There are days where I think both things more or less at the same time.
As I age, I increasingly ponder loyalty. Most of us, I suspect, have an understanding of it. Perhaps it’s a feeling that we’d crawl through burning oil and run across broken glass because the person to whom we are loyal needs it. And that person never asks; we merely give unreservedly.
Lately, however, loyalty I have awarded (given? allowed? presented? What is the word that best presents bestowal of loyalty?) has been strained. Is it because I have come to expect something in return? A little quid pro quo? If that attitude has emerged in me, I am saddened. But I fear it has. I am human: I have done for others without marked compensation or gratitude for so long … but now, am I finally seeking a little sugar for my faithful attention?
I used to advertise my loyalty and I don’t believe there is a single person I loved that I didn’t eventually betray. ― Albert Camus, The Fall
Loyalty for me has always been freely given with no expectation of reciprocity. Either in an instant, or over time, I have become loyal to you. You owe me naught. But 70 years old is no longer a distant horizon. Has the erosion of physical ability or the emergence of emotional and intellectual insecurity altered that equation? Do I now need something, somehow, from an individual or institution that has received unqualified, unquestioned loyalty from me? Continue reading →
On the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, perhaps it’s time to clarify what we mean when we say “The Beatles…”
Tonight will be the 50th anniversary of the advent of what most people think of as “The Sixties.” The avalanche of commentary that has accompanied this anniversary ranges from the hagiographic to the asinine, much of it driven by the political ethos that infuses every aspect of our lives these days. “If only these white guys hadn’t spoiled everything, other artists (implied: more worthwhile) would be more appreciated and influential”; “Without The Beatles no other artists (implied: no matter how clearly brilliant and innovative they were/are) could have accomplished the task of changing the culture.”
None of them spend much time on trying to discover and understand the simple truths of The Beatles as part of the American experience….
John Elway and Peyton Manning are Republicans. The Football Gods are Democrats.
As a Patriots fan, I initially had no real reason to root for either Seattle or Denver in yesterday’s Super Bowl. Seattle has never won one, so I was slightly inclined to root for them, but I have friends (and fellow bloggers) who live in Denver and root for the Broncos, so what the heck, why not root for the Broncos? I expected a close and exciting game, and if that’s what it was going to be, I’m fine with that. In fact, since the game doesn’t usually start until nearly midnight here in London, the prospect of staying up to three or four in the morning isn’t all that tempting, unless the Pats are involved, and, of course, they’re not this year. So I was going to watch a bit of the first quarter, and then hit the sack.
As you may have heard, our go-to groundhog is only right 39% of the time, at least when it comes to predicting winter’s duration. A coin toss would be a better predictor in Groundhog Day’s either/or racket. 39% is worse than chance.
As I heard this yesterday, I got to thinking. Unfortunately, my thinking only goes so far as, I must admit, I’ve got a hazy grasp of things statistical and probabilistic. “What if,” I wondered, “instead of seeing that as only being right 39% of the time, we rephrased it as being wrong 61% of the time?” 39% is such a sad, dismal little number, reminiscent of presidential approval ratings. It’s a number that won’t impress anyone. 61%, on the other hand, that might almost have a certain appeal to it. Continue reading →
The dark side of the 1970′s – family disintegration, existential angst, and other snakes in Southern California’s Eden emerge in Sumioka’s debut novel….
Mark Sumioka’s The Threshold of Insult is the first full length novel from a writer whose gritty, realistic fiction has graced the pages of a number of literary journals, including Scholars and Rogues. The same skills of capturing characters’ distinctive nuances and situations’ subtle breaking points that characterize Sumioka’s short fiction serve him well in this first attempt at fiction’s major genre.
The novel recounts the story of an unhappy family, Carl and Jessica Rose and their son Randy. Carl hates his job and feels trapped by his marriage and son. His wife Jessica, called Jess through most of the novel, feels trapped as Carl does, her suffering exacerbated by her low self-esteem and sense of dissatisfaction in her role as traditional housewife. Their son Randy, troubled by the tensions in his parents’ relationship, has his young life complicated and ultimately damaged by the unhealthy attentions of a seemingly kind neighbor, Van Witherspoon. The complex dynamics of the relationships of these four characters form the crux of the novel’s main story line. Continue reading →
Our culture of spectacle is awful, terrible, no-good, very bad – how’s that for a newsflash…?
Bear v. Shark by Chris Bachelder (image courtesy Goodreads)
Chris Bachelder’s Bear v. Shark is one of those books that does what one of my teachers used to admonish his students to do: it articulates the obvious. In many cases that is a good thing, not a bad one, and this book is one of those cases.
The subject of Bear v. Shark is the devolution of American culture, and Bachelder does a decent job of articulating the horror that is our descent into trivialized celebration of the meaningless with his overriding meme – a sensationalized “battle of the ages” between a bear (type never denoted) and a shark (type never denoted). Part of the charm of wading through Bachelder’s book is his constant evasion of answering this question: What kind of bear is going to fight what kind of shark – and why should I care? That he gets us to wonder about this instead of immediately responding “What a load of crap this is” says good things about his talent as a writer. But it doesn’t help this book, published in 2001, from feeling dated. Continue reading →
Pete Seeger, a warrior for social justice in America, held the line until the end.
I regret not seeing Pete Seeger live in concert–I was too young to have appreciated him in the 1960s and 1970s . I eventually got to see Richie Havens on the same bill as Arlo Guthrie in 2009, but not Pete Seeger. And now he’s gone at age 94.
There was was a recent Facebook post asking people to name ten albums that stayed with them. I forgot to add in my response one important collection: Songs for Political Action. It’s a 10-disc collection of American protest songs from the 1920s through the early 1050s. One of the songs was “Hold the Line” by Pete Seeger, written about the Peekskill Riots. I first heard selections from these albums in 1998 when I participated in a National Endowment for the Humanities workshop called “Communism in American Life” at Emory University. Continue reading →