William Shakespeare

Shakespeare was a Doobie Brother…?

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

ArtSunday: LIterature

Lee Smith’s Black Mountain Breakdown: high level lifestyle lit…

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

WordsDay: Literature

Salinger and Hemingway Were Pals, Sort of – Who Knew…?

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

The Arts

Art as production for use turned into art as production for profit

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….

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

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

Book-Review

Fool: Christopher Moore’s Shakespeare mashup diverts…and that alone…

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

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

WordsDay: Literature

Yukio Mishima and the struggle to be free…

“…I must point out that a memory which is suddenly revived carries a great power of resuscitation. The past does not only draw us back to the past. There are certain memories of the past that have strong steel springs and, when we who live in the present touch them, they are suddenly stretched taut and then they propel us into the future.” Yukio Mishima, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima (image courtesy Goodreads)

Sometimes one reads an author who makes one wonder what the hell the Nobel committee thinks about when it selects prize winners for literature. I had read some Yukio Mishima many years ago, during my undergraduate days, actually (Nixon was POTUS which should give you some idea of how long ago that was). Mishima’s strange death sparked my interest (I remember reading an article about him and his bizarre ending from, of all places, Life magazine at my parents’ home), so I had been on the lookout for one of his works. I ran into a used copy of his story collection Death in Midsummer and Other Stories  and remember thinking, in my idiosyncratic way, that the title story reminded me of Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” In fact, the collection resonates with the same sort of angst, alienation, and anger at the world/life/what ya got that pervades Salinger’s collection Nine Stories.

That same angst, alienation, and anger pervades The Temple of the Golden Pavilionone of the richest, finest novels a reader will find anywhere in literature. Reading such a powerful work makes one wonder how the Nobel committee ignored Mishima even as they rewarded his friend and mentor Yasunari Kawabata.  The answer to that question is like the answer to another question about the non-rewarding of literature’s most well-known prize that I asked last year: likely political in nature. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Ellen Foster: Kaye Gibbons’ dark victory…

In Ellen Foster Kaye Gibbons offers a flawed if compelling coming-of-age tale with a narrator who is by turns a believable rural North Carolina 11 year-old and – on occasion – an author remembering her 14 year-old self upon whom her character is based.

Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons (image courtesy Goodreads)

A book like Ellen Foster can be described in multiple ways which all mean the same thing: semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age, bildungsroman. This, Kaye Gibbons first novel, published during the wave of “women’s fiction” promulgated by the publishing industry in the 1980’s (others in this wave included Lee Smith, about whose work I’ll write later this year, and Ellen Gilchrist, about whom I won’t) is a quirky little book and has a great deal of charm. It certainly deserves much of the praise it has received. The story, told by the remarkably matter-of-fact narrator, “Ellen Foster,” (the first name is real; the last Ellen’s own construct based on her experiences), is a model of economy, covering as it does the deaths of Ellen’s mother, father, and maternal grandmother, as well as Ellen’s time living with first her parents, then one of her teachers, then her grandmother, then an aunt.

There are two matters to discuss about Ellen Foster. The first is the remarkable quality of the narration. It is really quite good: engaging, touching, occasionally laugh out loud funny. The second is the content of this story. How much is novel, how much is memoir? That question is the more intriguing, as it raises interesting questions about the wall between fiction and nonfiction. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Strange Fruit: Lillian Smith deconstructs the South’s peculiar institutions…

“That’s the South’s trouble. Ignorant. Doesn’t know anything. Doesn’t even know what’s happening outside in the world! Shut itself up with its trouble and its ignorance until the two together have gnawed the sense out of it.” – Lillian Smith, Strange Fruit

Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith (image courtesy Goodreads)

Books come to us in all sorts of ways. Some come assigned; some come recommended; some come by accident. Strange Fruit, Lillian Smith’s powerful indictment of the Jim Crow South, came to me in that third way. I was browsing the “sell off” books at my local library when I came across this powerful novel and decided to buy it based solely on the title – which may or may not have come from the Billie Holiday classic about lynching. Once I had decided to divide my reading year into world lit/Southern lit groups, Strange Fruit became a natural choice for the latter group. Following as it does Peter Taylor’s brittle, elegant A Summons to Memphis and Harry Crews’s over the top Southern Gothic nightmare A Feast of Snakes, Strange Fruit is a book that synthesizes both of those views of the South – though it was written 40 years before the former and 30 years before the latter works.

This is a book with a remarkable history. Vilified as obscene, there were numerous attempts to ban the book. The controversy made the book a best seller, in fact the best selling novel of 1944. No less a personage than Eleanor Roosevelt became a champion of the book. Perhaps, as has often been noted, the greatest outrage over the book came when it became known that the author was a Southerner – and a white woman. A generation later, of course, a Southern white woman would become a national heroine – eventually a national treasure – by writing much the same story – only in a more saccharine treatmentContinue reading

Harry Crews’s A Feast of Snakes: as dirty as realism gets…

When a writer combines washed up All-American football players, sexually frustrated former majorettes, a rattlesnake roundup, a racist, rapist sheriff, and dog fighting and sets it all in the rural South, one expects pretty much what Harry Crews gives us – a darkly tragicomic tale that delights even as it gives one the willies.

A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews (image courtesy Goodreads)

Another entry from the 2015 reading list’s Southern section is the subject of this essay. Like Richard Ford, about whom I have written, Harry Crews is another practitioner, whether he’d admit to it or not, of the literary style called dirty realism. He certainly provides a powerful example of SouthernGothic entertainment, too, as A Feast of Snakes, his eight novel, shows.

And perhaps that’s an important point to make about this novel. What makes A Feast of Snakes a powerful read is that for both those who like their Southern lit on the Gothic side, there’s plenty of the grotesque, eccentric, and sinister. For those who, like me, appreciate the economy of style and and cold-blooded examination of those in the lower ranks of the 99%, Harry Crews offers a novel that both delivers plenty of weirdness and plenty of honest examination of the wretched. From snake handling preachers to body building lawyers, this is a book with a little something for everyone. Continue reading

CATEGORY: Education

End of the semester writing professor blues

Here’s how it feels at the end of the spring semester for a longtime-journalist-turned-college-writing instructor:

I love working with college students, and I hope the feeling is mutual, for at least some of them, anyway. There’s no workplace I’ve ever found that’s more invigorating than the classroom.

But I work with freshmen only, and anymore, they communicate by liking, by following, by tweeting, by texting, and by slinging words and/or photographs and/or video on communications platforms I’ve never heard of. Most of the students I work with don’t understand—or, at best, dimly grasp—the value of what I encourage them to learn. Subject-verb disagreement? Fused sentences? Comma splices? Sentence fragments? The parts of speech? I’ve always (perhaps naively) believed these and related topics are the bedrock of good writing. Continue reading

ArtSunday

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey: Good Enough…

Catherine Morland is like most adolescents: too certain about what (she thinks) she knows, too uncertain about what she knows (she thinks) she doesn’t. Her negotiation of coming of age is about learning to manage both what she knows and what she doesn’t know – as well as learning how to recognize when she knows and when she doesn’t….

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (image courtesy Goodreads)

My life as a famous and beloved book essayist has its twists and turns. This week’s particular turn took me north to Maryland where I served in the graduation festivities at the university where I teach. As a result (and because I’m currently working my way through Daniel Forbes’ dystopian satire  Derail this Train Wreck), I’m doing what I warned you I might a week or so ago: writing about Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

Northanger Abbey is probably my least favorite of all great Jane’s works. There are a couple of reasons for this, and you may as well know them. First, it was published posthumously (as was my favorite of Austen’s works, the marvelous and prescient Persuasion about which I will write near the end of this year) although it was the first novel she ever completed. The story behind that is well documented: Northanger Abbey was accepted for publication, but the publisher later decided not to issue the book. Over a decade later – near the too early end of Austen’s life – her brother Henry bought the book back from that same publisher for the same price for which it had originally been purchased. Evidently, that publisher, Crosby and Co., was not known for either editorial or business acumen: in the time between their purchase of the manuscript in 1803 and Henry Austen’s repurchase of the manuscript in 1816 (a mere year before Jane’s death), Miss Austen had published four other novels of which a good publisher ought to have heard: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Emma. Though published initially by “A Lady,” anyone with an interest in literature or reading knew who the author was – except the fine folks at Crosby and Co. it seems. To get to the point, reason #1 why Northanger Abbey is my least favorite Austen work is that it’s a first novel with a first novel’s foibles: too much self-satisfied obvious authorial voice, too little attention to smoothing out the rough patches, which are numerous. Continue reading

Journalism

You, too, can be a journalist (or a corporate message control specialist)

I asked my students as the semester ended: “How many of you do not want to be journalists?”

Most raised a hand, albeit timidly. (I am, after all, a professor of journalism.)

“How many of you wish to work in PR or advertising?”

Several raised their hands. I smiled – in the evil way they say I do when I’m setting them up for the kill.

“If you plan to work in PR and advertising, then I’ll bet you’re going to be working as a journalist,” I said.

Confused looks ensued.

Suppose they take jobs with a mattress company, thinking they’ll be pushing sleep products — writing ads, doing media buys, all the sorts of things PR and advertising flacks do.

But at Casper, a start-up company, they’ll likely be working as journalists. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

The reading and writing doldrums…

Even the most avid reader, and the most dedicated writer, and I think I qualify as both, occasionally hits the doldrums – whether from a slow book, personal distractions, or the impositions of silly stuff like work…

EPSON MFP image

The author, much younger,  engrossed in a favorite pastime.

I am still making my way through Jose Saramago’s Baltasar and Blimunda, a book I began about a week ago and which I’m only two-thirds through. Saramago is a Nobelist and a brilliant writer,but reading him is a slow business. Whether that is due to his leisurely pacing or to the density of his writing (Baltasar and Blimunda is a novel of ideas as well as a historical work), I’ve found myself slogging through a very fine and engrossing novel.

So maybe it’s not my fault that I’m not writing a book essay yet again. Maybe I’ve just run into one of those writers whose work one simply can’t race through.

Continue reading

CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature

Rediscovered Twain Stories and the real Mr. Darcy: Scholarship and Smoke and Mirrors

Scholarly inquiry is often like panning for gold: patient tedium  yielding the occasional nugget. Then again, sometimes it yields to the temper of the times and decides to hype the discovery of iron pyrite. 

Mark Twain in Nikola Tesla’s laboratory (image courtesy Wikimedia)

That fount of all that is worth knowing in life, Facebook®, provided me with a couple of interesting items yesterday that were a step above the usual “look at what I’m having for dinner” and “here I am at (insert event name here)” fare. One was provided by a FB pal and fellow Scrogue who thought I’d find interesting a news item from Cal-Berkeley reporting that scholars have located a number of Mark Twain’s early newspaper pieces. A second item came to my attention via one of those pages one “likes/follows”: in this case, the FB page of a certain early 19th century British novelist with whom I have a nodding acquaintance. This item concerns a new book by a scholar who claims she has positively identified (which puts her in a queue with several other scholars) the historical figure upon whom that writer based one of her most famous literary creations, a rather proud sort of fellow named Fitzwilliam Darcy. Each of these stories is treated in a breathless sort of reportorial “wow, cool” tone. Continue reading

Conspiracy

Logic 101 – Day 1: Jade Helm 15

Wherein I “prove” logic can be fun, for me at least.

Welcome to Day 1 of Logic 101. Don’t worry. It’s a one-day class. Actually, the “class” is only as long as it takes you to read this post. Homework may take anywhere from 0 seconds to a lifetime, depending on one’s tolerance for such exercises. Continue reading