go-set-a-watchman

Go Set a Watchman: Historically Important – Literarily, Not So Much…

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

Homeland Security Precrime

Security vs privacy: RadioLab and the case for the surveillance state

Homeland Security PrecrimeWe all love freedom and the Constitution. But is it really that simple?

I’m a huge fan of a good debate. And by “debate” I don’t mean the sort of ginned-up scream-lie-and-spinfests we have come to associate with the term in the past few decades. No, I mean spirited, intelligent, thoughtful exchanges between parties with honest, good-faith disagreements. Lucky me, I tripped across one today.

My new friend – the lovely Christine – recently turned me onto RadioLab, and I’ve been streaming some of their podcasts while I work out. Today I listened to one that’s as fascinating as it is disturbing. It’s called “Eye in the Sky,” and if you’re plotting any crimes I suggest you give it a few minutes of your time before you pull the trigger, so to speak. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Walker Percy, the South, gentlemen, God…and me….

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

CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature2

Literature as comfort food…

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

CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature

A question of what matters: hyperrealism and the literature of detachment….

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

CATEGORY: AmericanCulture

The offended and the offenders

Some are circling the wagons, but for what cause?

I haven’t had much to say about politics of late, or society in general for that matter, and I’m beginning to like it that way. But since the whole flag/distraction debacle, something hasn’t settled right for me. I’m personally of many minds on it, seeing it historically, as it was intended, as it has been co-opted, as it’s currently used for both benign (if misunderstood) and malignant reasons. Symbols are big enough signifiers to hold many meanings. C’est la vie.

But there’s a secondary trend, a reaction to the whole flag debacle, a chorus of derision aimed at notion of being offended. These critics rightly suggest that there’s no right to not be offended. To make their case, they often seem to exhibit a strange glee at then intentionally offending, because fuck you. Continue reading

Jade Helm 15: here’s what I don’t get

By now I’m sure you know that the US is preparing to invade Texas. All kinds of self-medicating gongbats concerned sovereign citizens have dissected Washington’s nefarious scheme and they stand ready to defend The Republic from …

Okay, here’s where I need some help. I’ve been studying a map of the US, and I even consulted Wikipedia. Best I can tell, Texas is part of the United States, right?

Texas

Continue reading

go-set-a-watchman

Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman: mythbusting or manipulation?

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

norse battlefield

China, respectfully, stop poking the bear.

norse battlefield

image courtesy of alansondheim.org

So you discovered that 21 million people have security clearance in the United States. Is this surprising to you? Because it’s not to us. We are grateful that fewer than a million of them are charged with watching Americans. I am weighing the value of each word I type. I know our cyberwarriors are watching for keywords like “military industrial complex,” and “war on terror.”

The military industrial complex is a renewable contract which makes war (and thereby death) profitable. It is one of the founding principles we never talk about, but it has been with us since the beginning, when Spain, France, and Holland, controlled this land and we, being at war with Spain, France, and Holland, felt entitled to all the lands claimed by Spain, France, and Holland. The fact that other people lived here, and that Spain’s, France’s, and Holland’s claims were suspect and possibly baseless, provided no deterrent. It was profitable, therefore it must have been good.

The history of colonialism is the history of human beings struggling to contain this bear we call the military industrial complex. The bear finds honey and eats it, maybe in the form of a plantation, maybe in the form of a banana republic. It currently controls the Southern Hemisphere and most of the Northern Hemisphere. We have fought it off in the first world. When we talk about freedom, that’s really what we mean. The death machine must satisfy logical requirements before it eats us. We are in the process of expanding that freedom to include people of all colors and genders.

We have discovered, in the process of naming and taming this beast, that fighting it is impossible, because it only grows stronger. War is its food. It must be starved to death. In 2001, a few people who dressed like Arab Muslims attacked America. The bear ate five thousand Americans, and at least a hundred thousand civilians in three countries, most of them innocent, because one guy poked the bear by releasing a video of himself denouncing the United States. Don’t poke the bear. Continue reading

Megabot USA courtesy of businessinsider

Tantō

Kuratas Mecha courtesy of engadget

Kuratas Mecha courtesy of engadget.com

After a courageous performance
Against a team
That was clearly on fire,

And graciously ignoring
The obnoxious juvenile response
Of a nation defined by our wars,

Japan has quietly
Saved the world
By building a giant robot.

Megabot USA courtesy of businessinsider

Megabot USA courtesy of businessinsider.com

It has been a pleasure,
My fellow Americans,
To have served with you

In our common causes
Of freedom and justice,
But the day we feared has come. Continue reading

PTSD-Confederate-Flag

Confederate PTSD: Curing the South

PTSD-Confederate-FlagWhen I was in graduate school at Iowa State in the late 1980s I hit a period, during my second year, where a little homesickness set in. So I did something to remind myself of the place and people I was missing: I bought a Confederate flag and affixed it to my desk in the office, which I shared with 10-15 other MA students.

Some of my colleagues were, I think, appalled, and it was suggested that this was a symbol of slavery and racism. No, I said. I’m not a racist – it’s simply a reminder of home. I don’t think I used the word “heritage,” but from the outside what I was saying probably sounded exactly like what defenders of the flag are saying today.

As irony would have it, at the time I was dating a black woman. Continue reading

ArtSunday

Carson McCullers: trying to understand why love is so difficult…

In The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and in her short stories Carson McCullers seeks again and again after the same goal: to discover why love is so difficult to find and even more difficult to keep….

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories by Carson McCullers (image courtesy Goodreads)

Carson McCullers’ literary reputation has always been rather fragile as her work has an amorphous quality that makes her difficult to classify as a Southern writer even though her work has deep Southern roots. A true Southern eccentric, her work bears the earmarks both of Southern Gothic and of what would later come to be called dirty realism. At the same time her work carries forward the autobiographical strain of Thomas Wolfe, though McCullers’ particular focus is that most powerful and enigmatic of emotions, love. In one way or another, every work by Carson McCullers is a love story. Sadly but not surprisingly these stories are in one way or another stories of love lost. That is partly because McCullers seems to be trying, as autobiographical writers do, to work out the questions in the lost loves of her own life. Still, it would be unfair to say that her fiction is only a sort of self-administered therapy; the best of her works show us love as the rightful goal of human endeavor. Continue reading

Politics: Don't Tread on Me

It’s time we stopped worshipping the Constitution and our “founding fathers”

For our founding fathers, “people” was a euphemism” that meant “rich white men.” Sadly, the same is true for many of our current leaders.

It’s been a momentous couple of weeks. Obamacare won a key victory, and as a result it’s going to be much harder for Republican politicians to roll it back in the future. There is a great deal wrong with the Affordable Care Act, to be sure, but at least it represents the acknowledgment that the general health of the nation’s citizens is a legitimate government concern.

The Confederate flag – specifically, the famous Stars & Bars battle jack – and the deeply ingrained racism it represents took a major ass-whipping. No, striking a symbol of treason and prejudice won’t make racism go away – any more than electing a black president did – but it’s a meaningful symbolic victory in a long cultural war. If that flag flies on the grounds of the statehouse, it’s an express acknowledgement to everyone that it’s okay to celebrate a “heritage” built on slavery. Continue reading

WesSupremeCourt2

It will simply be marriage

WesSupremeCourt2On Friday June 26, James Obergefell, who was prohibited by the state of Ohio from listing himself as the surviving spouse on his husband, John’s death certificate, was granted a victory by the US Supreme Court in the case Obergefell v. Hodges. He spoke for about four minutes on the meaning of the decision for himself personally as well as for the country. My favorite part of his remarks was this explanation:

“It’s my hope that the term ‘gay marriage’ will become a thing of the past, that from this day forward it will simply be ‘marriage.’ And our nation will be better off because of it.”

Elsewhere in the crowd, in an Arkansas Razorbacks t-shirt and green John Deere baseball cap, my friend, Wes Givens, made a short post to Facebook:

WesWeWon

Continue reading

CATEGORY: CATEGORY: ArtSunday

James Street’s The Gauntlet: that old time religion…

James Street’s The Gauntlet, a novel about the trials of a young Southern Baptist minister in the 1920’s, will ring true, sometimes painfully so, for anyone who ever experienced small town church life….

The Gauntlet by James Street (image courtesy Goodreads)

From the literary efforts of arch poseur Jerzy Kosinski to the earnest writing of James Street is a pretty far leap, but I made it last week. I added this work to my “Southern, mainly North Carolinian” section of the 2015 reading list because I stumbled upon an account of Street’s untimely death in Chapel Hill, NC, in 1954 at the age of 50. That’s probably a rather macabre reason for adding a writer to a reading list, and certainly Street’s literary reputation is that of popular novelist rather than “serious” literary artist. The times we live in have pretty much eviscerated giving any form of art consideration by any other measure than “the marketplace,” however, and almost all of Street’s 17 novels were bestsellers in their time, so by current standards of literary excellence I can easily justify including him among those whose literary reputations might be more admired by the litfic crowd (of whom I’m a proud, card carrying member) whose achievements (and rewards) are too often intangible.

Besides, truth be told, Street is an able writer and The Gauntlet is a pretty good book that rings true in its depiction of small town church politics. Continue reading

ArtSunday

Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road: maybe Southerners aren’t merely caricatures…

Reading Caldwell’s Tobacco Road is reminiscent of watching an episode of Dukes of Hazzard and reading Flannery O’Connor at the same time… 

First, an anecdote:

Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell (image courtesy Goodreads)

Sometime back in my graduate school days I ran into an article in which the scholar spent a number of pages complaining that Charles Dickens didn’t create characters – rather, he created caricatures, exaggerated depictions of humanity. While I saw the guy’s point, it didn’t make me love Dickens any less. It seems to me Dickens’ caricatures (whether an Ebeneezer Scrooge or a Samuel Pickwick) vibrate with more of this thing we call life than most “realistic” literary characters (I’m looking at you, Emma Bovary).

Another anecdote:

I was a voracious reader as a child. Growing up as I did in the South, where for too many folks “reading” consisted of a) checking on how the Tarheels or Gamecocks or Cavaliers did, or b) reading (and usually badly misinterpreting) the Bible, my interests in books and learning made me both an anomaly and an object of suspicion, especially among my peers.

It also allowed me access to secret, forbidden worlds. Like the world of Erskine Caldwell. Continue reading

Confederate-Flag

This disgraceful rag

The goddamned thing is everywhere…

Whether it flies over the state house in South Carolina, or flaps from the back of some redneck’s truck in Southern California, this motherfucker has got to get pulled down, burned, and gone from our ways…

(Picture taken at Grover Beach, California in January, 2015)