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

CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature2

Peter Handke: the truth about sorrow…

What makes Handke exceptional is his willingness to engage us as well as himself in the difficulty of telling our truths, sharing our sorrows, interpreting our dreams….

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke (image courtesy Goodreads)

For the last (well, perhaps next to last) work from the “world literature” segment of the 2015 reading list, I return to an author who has decidedly influenced me in the way I write, in the way I think about writing, in the way I assess writing, particularly the writing of literature. I have written before about the great Peter Handke, the brilliant and controversial Austrian novelist, playwright, and filmmaker and about the power of his work to force the reader to reexamine his/her ways of looking at literature and at life.  No author of our time has been more relentless in his search for truth, nor has any author been able to say more with fewer words than Handke. For those few of you who know my work, a light bulb has probably just come on. For those of you not familiar with my work, please go buy it so that I can become a rich, vapid celebrity and lose all this delicious artistic integrity I’m always on about.

Handke is relentlessly brave, sometimes foolishly so, in his pursuit of what it means to be alive and writing about being so, so it should come as no surprise that he is equally as brave and equally as relentless in his examination of death and what it means to be so. His brilliant short meditation A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, written in the weeks after his mother’s suicide in early 1972, is vintage Handke: his search for the meaning of, in this case not simply the death of his mother but her death by suicide and the reasons behind her decision to end her life, as well as his search for what her death means to him, is a tour de force: terse, sometimes curt as a news item, sometimes poetic as a Heine lyric. The result is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius that actually is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. 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

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

CATEGORY: PersonalNarrative

Friends and acquaintances

Thursday morning I opened an email from my university and felt like somebody had slammed my heart with crowbar.

The message was about the wife of my best friend on the faculty. It said she had died Wednesday after routine surgery in Buffalo the day before. I read it again, hoping I’d misunderstood. I spent the next hours in a daze, near tears at times, and my wife was nearly as dazed as I was because she understands the depth of my friendship with this man.

He is an English professor about a dozen years older than I am, and he has been teaching at the university for decades. His students past and present love him. I took a graduate course from him many years ago, and it changed the way I see the world. I tell my academic advisees they should not graduate before they take a course from him.

I had a sick feeling the rest of the day. I still do. Continue reading

CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature

A Summons to Memphis: Peter Taylor and the cost of being Southern

Like other Southern writers of his generation (Walker Percy and Shelby Foote come immediately to mind), Peter Taylor explores the lives of upper class Southerners searching for some clue to unlock the terrible allegiances Southerners of a certain background feel to family, home, and tradition – and for what it costs to free oneself of those allegiances.

A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor (image courtesy Goodreads)

After the sort of manic energy I encountered in Daniel Forbes’s Derail This Train Wreck, I decided that I wanted something more – at least seemingly – sedate. I found it in the first of my Southern authors from the 2015 reading list, Peter Taylor. Best known for his short fiction (every short story writer should study The Old Forest and Other Stories for examples of how the short story is done well), Taylor is a Tennessean from exactly that sort of upper class background I mention above – and he explores the pain associated with breaking free of such a background with all its attendant traditions and constraints – as brilliantly as do those contemporaries, Walker Percy and Shelby Foote. A Summons to Memphis is in a very real way the story of a trial: the trial of being a scion of privilege in a place where such a plummy birth carries within it the seeds of destruction for all lucky enough to be such fruit. Continue reading

Woman-Power

My gender survey of the bios of S&R staff members – a theory

Scholars & RoguesSeveral weeks ago, I was asked to provide a biographical entry on myself for a staff profile on S&R. I put some thought into it, wrote it, submitted it.

It just so happened that at the same time, I was deeply into rereading Carol Gilligan’s “In a Different Voice,” which is an important work about which I will eventually write much more here. Bio written, I picked up Gilligan and was immediately struck by something. Expressed in various ways throughout the book, a primary theme was that women tend to define themselves primarily in terms of relationships they are in. Continue reading

Woman-Power

Sado-ritual syndrome, part V – applying Daly’s elements to Chinese footbinding

(part I, part II, part III, part IV)

Element I – obsession with purity

We have already reviewed the lotus as a symbol of purity and the fact that maimed three inch feet were called “lotus hooks.” We have also seen how physical immobility and resulting confinement guaranteed women’s sexual and even mental fidelity. Continue reading

Religion

Lost our way morally? Like hell, Mike.

In Huckabee’s America, all who fail to believe as he does are morally bankrupt

From Mike Huckabee’s announcement of his 2016 presidential campaign:
“But we’ve lost our way morally. We have witnessed the slaughter of over 55 million babies in the name of choice, and are now threatening the foundation of religious liberty by criminalizing Christianity in demanding that we abandon Biblical principles of natural marriage. Many of our politicians have surrendered to the false god of judicial supremacy, which would allow black-robed and unelected judges the power to make law and enforce it-upending the equality of our three branches of government and the separation of powers so very central to our Constitution. The Supreme Court is not the Supreme Being, and they can’t overturn the laws of nature or of nature’s God.”

Continue reading

Woman-Power

Sado-ritual syndrome, part IV – Chinese footbinding

(part I, part II, part III)

“If you care for a son, you don’t go easy on his studies; if you care for a daughter, you don’t go easy on her footbinding.”

Chinese saying,

Ts’ai-fei lu

“…a woman’s heart must be of such a size, and no larger, else it must be pressed small like Chinese feet; her happiness is to be made as cakes are, by a fixed receipt. That was what my father wanted.”

George Elliot,

Daniel Deronda  Continue reading

Woman-Power

Sado-ritual syndrome, part III – applying Daly’s elements to suttee

(part I, part II)

In applying Mary Daly’s elements to several areas of ritualized women’s oppression, we will see how they are all related. Daly calls this feminist process “the development of a kind of positive paranoia.”

Element I – obsession with purity

In suttee, care was taken not to cremate the woman alive during times of “impurity” such as menstruation or pregnancy. She was ritually bathed beforehand. As I explained in part II, by ridding the community of widows, a source of potential sexual impurity was purged from the community. Continue reading

Book-Review

Book Review: Lost in the Darkness by William Mark

William Mark’s novel is a complex, sometimes convoluted, mix of abductions (both child and adult), sexual perversions, and rogue crusading that makes for a Mulligan stew of equal parts truth and lies, good and evil, and right and justice.

Another break from the 2015 reading list (next up, Sartre’s autobiography, The Words which I’m sure will be a fun romp) for a review of a new book sent me by my friends at Southern Yellow Pine Publishing. This one is a mixture of  genres, mystery, thriller, and crime fiction. It features the classic rogue cop, a beautiful, wealthy and slightly mysterious benefactress, an “A Team” motley crew of secretive, extra-legal crusading do-gooders (funded by that benefactress) whose mission is to find missing children and restore them to their parents, a nosy reporter whose ambition and unscrupulousness might expose the operation and wreck the lives of the crusaders and their benefactress, and, at the heart of the story, a missing child – the son of that rogue cop mentioned above – and a despicable sleazeball pervert of a politician.

As you might guess, unraveling this complicated skein of a yarn takes some time. Continue reading

CATEGORY: PersonalNarrative

The twisting, capricious nature of “blessings”

CATEGORY: PersonalNarrativeYesterday was … unsettling. Any time you’re meeting with your physician and the words “brain tumor” come out of her mouth, it’s going to make you sit up a little straighter, even if she’s mostly dismissing it as a possibility. Mostly.

As I have noted before, I suffer from a disorder that causes significant vertigo issues and, commencing in the past few years, a condition called Nystagmus. In 2007 I visited a top dizziness expert at the University of Colorado medical center in hopes of finding some good news. I submitted to many tests and the diagnosis was a degenerative inner ear disorder. It was going to get worse, I was told. Also, people who suffer from diseases like this one enjoy an exceptionally high suicide rate. (Although, perhaps “enjoy” isn’t quite the right word.)

I had been a very active athlete my whole life, but not any more. Continue reading

CATEGORY: Guns

Rights and reasoning from first principles

I think both sides need to go back to the drawing table

I just saw a video that left me in a bit of a quandary. Unfortunately, it’s embedded in a Facebook post, so I’ll just have to link to it here rather than display it. The premise is simple enough. Kroger apparently permits open carry of firearms, at least in jurisdictions where that is legal. Upset gun control advocates would like Kroger to stop this practice.

Fair enough on its face. People want things to be different. They’re exercising their right to free speech to put pressure on the company. Fine.

Here’s what gets me though. Continue reading

Hillary announces, Progressives already getting thrown under bus

It’s not even damned if we do, damned if we don’t. It’s just damned.

Of course you’ve probably heard that Hillary has finally announced, on Twitter no less.

Continue reading

ArtSunday

Sigrid Undset and the art of storytelling: Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath

“…it’s a good thing when you don’t dare do something if you don’t think it’s right. But it’s not good when you think something’s not right because you don’t dare do it.” – Sigrid Undset

Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath by Sigrid Undset (image courtesy Goodreads)

I first came across Sigrid Undset during my first year of teaching. The school where I taught had a set of world literature texts that they were discarding (the books were in great shape and to this day I puzzle over why books full of world literature classics were being discarded) and I snagged one of them and over the course of a few weeks of casual reading made my way through a variety of selections by writers I knew like Hugo and Goethe and de Maupassant and Cervantes – and writers I sort of knew like Strindberg (“Half a Sheet of Paper” shows how flash fiction should be done) and writers I didn’t know – like Sigrid Undset.

The world lit collection contained a selection from Kristin Lavransdatter I. (For those familiar with the work, it’s the chapter where Kristin and Ingeborg become lost in the forest and are rescued from the German boys by Erland.) I found it rich, engrossing writing, though the pace was not such that it appealed to me in my youth. Still, I remembered the careful accrual of detail and the power of the writing and made a mental note to read more Undset.

It’s taken me about 40 years to get back to her. Perhaps I needed those years to develop a palate able to appreciate what rich gift patient, thorough storytelling is. If so, I am grateful; Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath is the embodiment of what we should mean when we talk about great storytelling. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Yasunari Kawabata and The Sound of the Mountain…

“But a haiku by Buson came into his mind: ‘I try to forget this senile love; a chilly autumn shower.’ The gloom only grew denser.” – Yasunari Kawabata

The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata (image courtesy Goodreads)

Reading Japanese Nobelist Yasunari Kawabata’s The Sound of the Mountain, one is reminded of the great films of his artistic contemporaries Yasujiro Ozu and Akira KurosawaTokyo Story and Ikuru, respectively. These two cinema classics, like Kawabata’s novel, deal with the themes of aging, family relationships (particularly parents/adult children and grandparents/grandchildren), and the psychological and philosophical aspects of coming to terms with the end of life. Tokyo Story tells about the trip of an elderly couple to see their beloved adult children and grandchildren and the disappointment they feel when they realize their loved ones have no time for or interest in them. Ikuru (which translates as “to live”) tells the story of an aging bureaucrat who gets a terminal illness diagnosis and attempts to “do something” before he dies that will give his life meaning.

Ikuru appeared in 1952, Tokyo Story in 1953. The Sound of the Mountain was originally published the following year, 1954. This period, short of a decade after the end of World War II, seems to have been a time of bittersweet reflection for members of this generation (Kawabata, Ozu, and Kurosawa were all born within about a decade of each other). Continue reading

kamiya bar

Kamiya Bar (神谷バー)

Dedicated to my wife Michele…

…to whom I have been married for 15 years as of today, and who lived and inspired this story and so many others in my heart’s yet unwritten library.

The old timers had been going there for over one hundred years, and I was finally back after more than twenty.

It was Kamiya Bar, in the Asakusa part of Tokyo, and in 2008 it was the oldest western-style bar in the city. Western as in high ceilings, with wood-veneer wall panels, chrome light fixtures and those patterned tin ceiling tiles you see in old saloons in Tombstone, Arizona or Virginia City, Nevada.

But I don’t mean it also had brass spittoons and buffalo horns on the walls.

Continue reading

Woman-Power

For Women’s History Month – meet, and say good night to, Adrienne Rich

Fabulous feminist foremother Adrienne Rich has died at the age of eighty-two. I once went to a reading of hers. It was unforgettably powerful. I have read most of her books including her non-fiction “Of Woman Born.” I loved her and always will. She was brilliant. She was fierce. She was unapologetically feminist and unapologetically lesbian. From her New York Times obit tonight:

Adrienne Rich, a poet of towering reputation and towering rage, whose work — distinguished by an unswerving progressive vision and a dazzling, empathic ferocity — brought the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse and kept it there for nearly a half-century, died on Tuesday at her home in Santa Cruz, Calif. She was 82. Continue reading