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.

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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

CATEGORY: PersonalNarrative

Science!

Let me tell you about middle school science projects. When I was a kid in a small town in Tennessee back in the long ago, science wasn’t held in the same reverence it is in 2014. Our projects were constrained by our parents and church, so things like evolution, dinosaurs, and any place outside of the Confederacy being the center of the universe were not considered proper discussion topics, and had no place being pinned to a sheet of white poster board and presented as fact. Times have changed…in some places. Consider the following, which took place just last April.

“I had to do a science project for school,” said my son, Joey. “It’s part of the Common Core.”

“Great,” I said. “So when do we get started on it?”

“Get started?” he muttered. “I finished it yesterday.” Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

The state of literary art II: of literary magazines…

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

cover, Fiction International (image courtesy Fiction International website)

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

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

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

WordsDay: Literature

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

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

Waiting for Nothing by Tom Kromer (image courtesy Goodreads)

I realize I have been remiss.

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

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

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

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

CATEGORY: WordsMatter

The Venereal Game: or, you don’t have a dirty mind, do you…?

James Lipton’s book on venery is about as much fun as one can have with words.

An Exaltation of Larks or, The Venereal Game by James Lipton

I’m back to the 2014 reading list with a book I picked up at my favorite used book shop – this one about as much fun as one can have with words. The book is called An Exaltation of Larks, or The Venereal Game and it’s written by James Lipton – yep, the same James Lipton who was the longtime dean of the Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University and host of Bravo’s fascinating Inside the Actors Studio.

While this book is indeed about venery, it’s the second definition at the link that fits Lipton’s work, not the first. Certainly there’s indulgence bordering on the decadent, but it’s overwhelmingly of the mental rather than physical sort – though for those of you whose minds drift in those directions, there’s enough titillation to make even the flashing of wit that pervades this work – an excitement of thinkers.

Venery, for those who have refused to hypertext, in that second definition means “animals that are hunted; game.” The derivation of the word is given as follows:

Middle English venerie, from Anglo-French, from Old French vener to hunt, from Latin venari — more at venison.  First Known Use: 14th century

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Glenn Beck might be available for your call. Don’t delay. Dial now.*

Is there a word for espousing the practice of fine points of faith while breaking with the key themes?

888-727-BECK

I realize my views on the following topic may well be considered heretical. I’m okay with that. The folks most likely to believe that about what I think and say hold views I’m likely to find heretical. I do hope you’ll pardon me for chiming in. I’m willing to bet I’m at least as qualified to weigh in on matters of faith as Glenn Beck is, so I see this as entirely fair game.

Recently, Raw Story posted the following:

MA mayor: City to donate $5 for every angry, anti-LGBT caller Glenn Beck sends after us

If one had to guess, in a general way, the religion of the people who hate LGBT people, or at the very least, express anger to and about them, what would it be in the good ol’ US of A? In other countries, other religions might fit the bill just as easily, but I’m talking about here. Continue reading

The Arts

Pat McCrory, Art Pope, and the short unhappy career of a Poet Laureate…

The North Carolina Poet Laureate controversy isn’t about poetry, it’s about power – and probably about money, too…

Erato, Muse of Poetry (image courtesy Wikimedia)

North Carolina has been in the news a lot lately – and not for the right reasons. A Tea Party-dominated legislature doing the bidding of a billionaire ally of the Koch Brothers, a guy named Art Pope who, while having inherited a vast fortune made by his father by selling crappy stuff to the poor, has wholeheartedly embraced  the somewhat warped version of Randian philosophy of “more for me and none for you if there’s any way I can make that happen.” As is typical in such cases, Pope sees himself as a self-made man who “won life’s race.”  Well, as my colleague Sam Smith notes, winning the 100-yard dash of life is not so tough when you start at the 90-yard line and your competitors start somewhere in the Gobi Desert. Call it the Dubya Effect: congratulating yourself for being the scion of wealth and scoffing at those who didn’t wind the biological lottery.

The words you’re looking for are selfish, self-satisfied asshole. Continue reading

Right-wing Christian group tried to convert this city’s kids — but they’re fighting back @ AlterNet

Right-wing Christian group tried to convert this city’s kids — but they’re fighting back

“The Good News Club curriculum is filled with over 5,000 references to sin and thousands more to obedience, punishment, and hell. It stresses Old Testament narratives of a retributive God who must punish sin, warns children that they will suffer an eternity in hell if they refuse to believe, and stresses complete obedience as the supreme value. Good News Club tells children as young as preschoolers that they have “dark” and “sinful” hearts, were born that way, and “deserve to die” and “go to hell.””

I realize I’m trolling on the religion front here, and that’s deeply sensitive territory for some, but this goes right back to what I’ve brought up before about Christians vs. Christians. Were I to live in a different culture, I’m sure I’d have the same attitude about Muslims vs. Muslims or Buddhists vs. Buddhists. Thing is, there are widely different beliefs from one denomination, even one congregation, to another. This is, for many, their “valid” (note: subjective) set of beliefs. For a great many other believers, and especially for a great many who have either left “the church,” non-believers, and other believers, the kind of theology taught in these groups (brace for being offended if this describes your faith, my bad) is utterly reprehensible. Foisting it on impressionable forming child minds (as young as pre-school) would be, in my opinion, as bad as showing kids that age rated R horror movies. Continue reading

Journalism

Journalists’ use of anonymous sources now an epidemic of deceit

Too many news organizations, despite their own policies, grant anonymity far too often, allowing sources with agendas to escape responsibility for what they say.

Two words in a news story should forewarn you that what you read is unlikely to be The Truth.

… anonymity because …

Those two words appear in sentences like these:

From Al Jazeera: The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly.

From an AP story: … who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly.

And, just this morning, from an AP story about captured Benghazi suspect Ahmed Abu Khattala: The officials spoke only on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the Libyan’s whereabouts publicly by name.

Anonymice — what I call sources who will not speak unless journalists allow them to remain nameless (and therefore blameless) — do not and should not inspire trust. The careless use of anonymous sources presents consequences and challenges for journalists and readers and viewers alike. Gratuitous, careless, and amateurish use of anonymice frustrates journalism educators like me, too: It’s a bad habit students often try to imitate.
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WordsDay: Literature

Gatsby IS Great…

Despite occasional detractors, The Great Gatsby remains a gold standard for American fiction…

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (image courtesy Goodreads)

Having read John Edward Williams’ magnificent novel Stoner a couple of weeks ago, I noticed that one reviewer referred to the novel as the “anti Gatsby.” That got me to do a little looking around – and I found some interesting things being said about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel (most in some way or another trying to tie in to the recent release of yet another attempt to make a film of what is damned near prose poetry). A couple of the more interesting essays I’ll mention here in the course of my own comments about the novel. And yes, I’ve gone off the reading list again to zip through Gatsby for the 20-something-th time. I wanted to read Fitzgerald while Williams was still relatively fresh in my mind.

Anyway, the talk about Gatsby – and the need reviewers and essayists felt to compare Stoner to The Great Gatsbywould lead one to conclude that there is some consensus that The Great Gatsby is the Great American Novel®.  This is, I admit, something of a surprise to me. I’d always assumed (and remember, friends, this is an English professor writing to you – oh, that’s right, credentials mean nothing on the Internet – never mind) that this book was the #1 contender for that amorphous (and perhaps dubious) distinction.

But it would seem I may be wrong and that West Egg’s gaudiest, gauchest gangster has supplanted the Mississippi’s most roguish and reflective rafter as the sweetheart of American literature. I don’t think that this is a good or bad thing. But I believe it may be of interest to consider why The Great Gatsby  now seems to hold a higher place in the American reader’s psyche than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Continue reading

CATEGORY: WordsDay

John Edward Williams’ Stoner and the Glory of Realism…

John Edward William’s Stoner is proof that there’s life in tradition and the individual talent yet…

Stoner by John Williams (image courtesy Goodreads)

Modernism was a funny period. It fostered experimentation in every genre of the arts (about which I have written before) and brought us numerous “isms” – Dadaism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism. It also brought, as I have also noted, the “academicization” of the arts, particularly after World War II. Modernist works in every branch of art – music, visual art, literature – are most clearly characterized by difficulty posed to the listener/viewer/reader. Whether the dissonant 12 tone compositions of Schoenberg, the seemingly chaotic drip paintings of Pollock, or the stream-of consciousness narrative experiments of Joyce/Woolf/Faulkner, Modernist artists sought to force readers to be aware of their engagement with art – whether they appreciated that engagement or not.

The successor to Modernism’s rigorous challenge to the audience was, of course, PoMo, post-modernism, perhaps best exemplified in the attempted elevation of the popular and commercial as art. The problem with post-modernism is that its “anything can be art” ethos can be (and has been) easily abused. The expression of this in literature has been the elevation of popular genre fiction (science fiction, fantasy, detective works for example  – sometimes justifiably, sometimes unjustifiably) to the level of serious literature.

What has been lost in these shifting currents of artistic movement is a profound, enduring current that has been represented, especially in the PoMo period, probably best by the work of creative writing programs (a graduate of one myself, I have not been kind to them). That current is  realism. (Not that it hasn’t been represented elsewhere in the arts ever since its emergence as a movement – for every Pollock, there has been a Hopper; for every Schoenberg, a Copland; for every Faulkner, a Farrell.)

As we have recently discovered, and as the always insightful Wufnik has noted, for every Pynchon, there is a John Edward Williams. Williams’ Stoner is as superb an example of American realism as anything by Twain, Howells, or Henry James. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Tristan and Isolde: Gottfried von Strassburg is All About the Love…

 Gottfried reminds us that love is complicated – and, we can assume, chemical, too….

Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg (image courtesy Goodreads)

Back to  the 2014 reading list again. After taking a break from heavier (and, in one case, more depressing) works to read a little about fly fishing in my home state, I’m back to the sort of “serious” literature you’ve come to know and be bored out of your skulls by that I, ever needing to scratch the scholarly itch, adore wading through. And so we return to medieval literature.

If you remember, the last time we visited this area was to discuss Christine de Pizan’s remarkable The Book of the City of Ladies, a tour de force of proto-feminist argumentation against the deplorable depiction of women in the late 4th-early 15th century (Pizan’s work was published in 1405).  For this essay we jump backwards a couple of hundred years to the early 13th century and look at one of the great courtly/chivalric romances, Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman: the South’s stories, demagoguery, history…

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Clansman by Thomas W. Dixon, Jr. (image courtesy Wikimedia)

We leave the 2014 reading list in this essay to consider a classic American novel of dubious repute that I read as a substitute last week when I was traveling and had forgotten my current book from the list.

Sometimes it is easiest – and wisest – to begin with a cliché. So here’s one about the place I am from and love with all my heart:

All Southerners are born storytellers….

This oft repeated claim has, as do all clichés and truisms, its basis in fact. Southerners seem to find in storytelling a needful way to explain the world and how it works. This is not to say that other regions of the United States do not feel this. But Southerners, more than people from any other region of America, are noted for their propensity to offer stories as explanations for “the way things are/were/will be/should be.” Leave it to Southerners, too, to take religion and make that all about storytelling. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

The Te of Piglet: High Concept Meets Philosophy

In which the Taoist nature of the Three Acre Wood is further explored – or not…

The Te of Piglet by Benjamin Hoff (image courtesy Goodreads)

As I make my way through Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (which has proven to be a slower read than I’d hoped), I offer here a review of one of the sort of books that proliferated beginning back in the 1980’s once the conglomerates got hold of publishing and began looking for “hits”: books that would find success through a clever writer’s ability to find “buzz.” That elusive quality called “buzz” has nothing to do with a book offering anything of value – it has everything to do with a book being able to capture cultural zeitgeist – and, as a result, generate big sales numbers. Because as we all know, the meaning of life is how much money anyone’s actions are capable of generating. Am I right?

Well, of course, I’m not. Sometimes a book captures the zeitgeist despite the fact that the elevator pitch might make a decision maker either a) shrug the shoulders in indifference or b) dismiss the pitch as “won’t generate revenue” or “already done.” Of course, there might be the rare occasion when response c) “intriguing – let’s run some numbers” occurs. Continue reading

Wired article gets basic probability wrong

It may seem like a small thing, but if you write for one of America’s premier tech magazines, you have a responsibility to understand how probability works.

Earlier today Wired published an article on how a new Quantum theory could explain the flow of time. Great stuff, and really interesting. Definitely give it a read.

But in the course of the article the writer makes a mistake that I see more often than I’d like. Here’s the graf, and I have boldfaced the problem section.

Consequently, a tepid cup of coffee does not spontaneously warm up. In principle, as the pure state of the room evolves, the coffee could suddenly become unmixed from the air and enter a pure state of its own. But there are so many more mixed states than pure states available to the coffee that this practically never happens — one would have to outlive the universe to witness it.

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NCAA no longer accepting coursework from several virtual high schools

Academic performance by K12 Inc. somehow fails to measure up to rigorous big-money sports cartel standards.

The NCAA has announced it will no longer accept coursework from two dozen online charter high schools around the country. These schools employ a curriculum from a for-profit company called K12 Inc.

The move is understandable, I suppose. K12 has been heavily criticized for producing abysmal results. Continue reading

Big-Data

Nate Silver: Geek? Yes. Thoughtful journalist? Bigger yes.

FiveThirtyEight post on disputed climate change story signals commitment to transparency

Yesterday, after reading criticisms of Nate Silver’s revamped FiveThirtyEight, I thought: Denny, find out for yourself. After all, I am, at least historically, a geek. And, I thought, years of reading his New York Times blog showed me Nate is King Geek and FiveThirtyEight at ESPN would, no doubt, reflect that.

So I read “The Messy Truth Behind GDP Data.” Not bad. Classic FiveThirtyEight geeky on an important topic. But, even through so many pundits and politicos base analyses on flawed understandings of GDP, reading the post was akin to watching paint dry. I tried Harry Enten’s story about Hillary and polling. Egads: So. Many. Numbers. Unfamiliar terms. Headache ensues.

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