CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature

The State of Literary Art IV: fiction that is super – or maybe just superfluous…

What Joe David Bellamy calls “super fiction” may well have led us to the superfluous…

Literary Luxuries by Joe David Bellamy (image courtesy University of Missouri Press)

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

After a week away, we return to Joe David Bellamy’s Literary Luxuries: American Writing at the End of the Millennium. This will likely be the most interesting – and perhaps controversial – essay in this series because of Bellamy’s subject matter. The section of the book from which the Bellamy pieces to be discussed is called “Literary Meteorology,” and the subject matter is part and parcel of the argument that raged throughout the 20th century not just in literary circles but in other areas of what used to be known as “high art” – visual art and “serious” music: how far can artists (of all types) go in terms of experimentation with style and subject matter before they “lose” their audiences and end up “creating” only for themselves – and some precious few critics who value difficulty in ascertaining meaning as the highest hallmark of artistic achievement.

There are three essays in this section of Literary Luxuries, the first two of which deserve the most attention. Continue reading

ArtSunday

Tove Jansson’s Summer Book: imagining reality

Jansson’s brilliance is her understanding that the world of childhood and the world of adulthood are separated by the thinnest of distances – sort of an “It’s just a jump to the left” thing….

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (image courtesy Goodreads)

Once again my fellow “mad for reading” sort Wufnik got to me.

Wuf wrote an intriguing piece about the Finnish writer Tove Jansson, she of “Moomins” fame, who also had a significant career as a writer of works for adults. I was vaguely familiar with the Moomin books (terrific stuff for children and adults smart enough to realize that kids like the best stuff), but I had no experience with – actually, knowledge of – her work for adults. So after reading Wufink’s essay on the dreamlike, magical memoir Sculptor’s Daughter, I expanded my 2014 reading list yet again (I have got to do a post to share the added works I’ve been reading) to add one of Jansson’s works. My choice was one of Jansson’s earliest forays into adult fiction, the in-its-own-right dreamlike and magical (magical and dreamlike aren’t fair terms to use for Jansson, for she has those qualities in ways that make other writers see uncomfortably pedestrian – in fact, what she does probably should have resulted in the coinage of its own term – Janssonesque) work, The Summer Book.

The Summer Book is a work of fiction – to call it a novel would not be accurate, nor would calling it a short story collection be correct in any strict sense. The term vignette is most apropos, probably, but that implies a fleeting quality to each of the 22 brief  – tales. Tales is a good term, one that links Jansson to the writer I know most akin to her in storytelling – Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), the great Danish tale teller. While their subject matter is radically different, the spellbinding charm of the two writers as storytellers is such that reading one will remind one of the other. 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

ArtSunday: LIterature

The state of literary art I: who is an artist?

American literary fiction over the last 50 years has been, it seems, in a struggle to find an audience…

Literary Luxuries: American Writing at the End of the Millennium by Joe David Bellamy (image courtesy University of Missouri Press)

Another book from the 2014 reading list composed of essays. This one, Literary Luxuries: American Writing at the End of the Millenium, is a collection of essays by writer, writing teacher, and litfic cheerleader Joe David Bellamy. Since this is a book of essays that range over a number of issues confronting the literary community, it seems logical to look at Bellamy’s book in sections. So, as I’ve done with a book of scholarly essays on popular music as protest, I’ll be looking at this work over a number of weeks. This will allow me to share Bellamy’s wide ranging discussions of issues such as  of support for the arts (particularly literature), writers’ conferences, creative writing programs, and styles of literary fiction.

Bellamy has a lot to say about each of these areas (and others) and his opinions are – interesting might be the best word. I agree with some of his assessment of the state of litfic, some of it I would say probably needs updating, and some of it smacks of his personal biases. That last is not necessarily a bad thing – except when he resorts to trying to make literature style an object of political analysis. Continue reading

CATEGORY: ArtSunday

Book Review: Jupiter and Gilgamesh – A Novel of Sumeria and Texas by Scott Archer Jones

Jupiter and Gilgamesh is a story about life decisions – good, bad, and inexplicable – and how those decisions add up ultimately to – a life well lived…

Jupiter and Gilgamesh: a Novel of Sumeria and Texas by Scott Archer Jones (image courtesy Goodreads)

I have an empathetic affinity for the genesis of Scott Archer Jones’s latest novel, Jupiter and Gilgamesh: a Novel of Sumeria and Texas. Jones states that the genesis of his book came partly from a high school English teacher who made him read The Epic of Gilgamesh – and that the character of Gilgamesh was so intriguing (probably compelling is a better word) that he’s read the poem multiple times since that first encounter.

In the vernacular of our time, I feel you, Scott. My first book came partly from my experience of a couple of related works first read at the behest of teachers: Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and Malory’s Morte D’Arthur. The power of literature draws us on, it seems, like the song of the sirens until some of us begin to “sing in our chains,” as the poet said.

That singing in one’s chains thing is a key theme in Jupiter and Gilgamesh. The main character is one Matthew (Matt) Devon, a gifted advertising man who owns a very successful ad agency in Amarillo, Texas. When we meet Matt, however, (I’ll ignore the novel’s prelude for now) he is living – hiding out, really – in an old grain elevator that he is having remodeled in a small farming town a short distance from Amarillo), trying to run his business via phone conferences, and has taken to calling himself Jupiter. Continue reading

Poetry

Book Review: Throwing the house from the window by Joshua William Booth

Poems that occasionally challenge readers…the “trigger warning” excuses can begin in 3…2…1….

Throwing the House From the Window by Joshua William Booth

A couple of things will become obvious quickly for readers of this review. The first is that the reviewer has the same last name as the author being reviewed. That would be because we are related. Put that aside. If writers from Sophocles to Turgenev to Steinbeck have taught us anything, it’s that father to son assessments should be read with…a critical mind, let’s say.

The second is that the author of this volume of poetry is a working poet as well as the poetry editor at Scholars & Rogues. So I admit freely there’s a bit of insider trading going on here. But I challenge the reader to find a publication that does not tout works by its own staff. For those who’ve taken that challenge – well, they’ll be gone awhile, so let’s move on, shall we?

Throwing the house from the window is Booth’s third book and second book of poetry. A brief look at his first two works is probably apropos to set this third work in context.

His second book, Danger! God Particles, is a series of what would commonly be called “flash fictions” these days, though Booth, an admirer of Donald Barthelme (and arguer with this reviewer on multiple occasions about the author’s merits) would point the reader towards Sixty Stories as an influence.  Continue reading

A Falun Dafa protest parade

Reporting from San Francisco, on the 15th anniversary of the Chinese crackdown…

The procession began with a marching band, but this was the only component it had in common with a typical American celebratory parade. This was a much more serious affair. For though it superficially looked like a parade, it was actually a protest against the People’s Republic of China and that country’s persecution of practitioners the Falun Dafa spiritual discipline.

The marching band behind this large identifying banner led the procession, which contained hundreds of people.

Continue reading

ArtSunday: Chip

Photographers know to always be ready. The best shot may be the one you aren’t expecting.

The Balloons Over Bend festival was in town this weekend. I got up early this morning and headed down to Riverbend Park to hopefully get some nice shots of hot air balloons, which I have never photographed before.

I found a spot up on the hill behind the park (the hill where my office is located, in fact), set up the tripod and waited for the festivities to commence. But apparently it was too windy, and sadly no balloons were going to fly. Which sucked – if you’re going to crawl out of bed at 5:30am on a Sunday, you don’t want it to be in vain.

But then, as I was sitting there, this happened. Continue reading

Arts and Literature

Making the familiar strange: is this the key to artistic Nirvana…?

The Dark Knight, elves, and the question of plagiarism.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (image courtesy Goodreads)

…when damn near everything presents itself as familiar — it’s not a surprise that some of today’s most ambitious art is going about trying to make the familiar strange. In so doing, in re-imagining what human life might truly be like over there across the chasms of illusion, mediation, demographics, marketing, imago, and appearance, artists are paradoxically trying to restore what’s taken for “real” to three whole dimensions, to reconstruct a univocally round world out of disparate streams of flat sights. – Jonathan Lenthem

Sam Smith and I had this email conversation last week (we have such conversations fairly regularly) about writing. I had just reviewed another highly successful genre novel, Hugh Howey’s Wool, and was mewling and puking as I often do about a primary complaint I have about some of the most popular – and revered – authors of the current boom in genre lit of one form or another: their tendency to spend the endings of their novels setting up the next book in their series. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Hugh Howey’s Wool: Utopia for lovers of Dystopia

Wool is a smart, interesting take on the dystopian novel. It’s also kind of frustrating in that “wait for the next book to find out” way….

Wool by Hugh Howey (image courtesy Goodreads)

My local library, a vibrant place of reading, thinking and culture in my community, which I support wholeheartedly in spite of reassurances from the likes of the Google boys and Jeff Bezos that such places are no longer necessary, has been having its annual community read during the month of June. This year’s read has been the bestselling dystopian epic Wool by Hugh Howey.  (Yep, I’m off the 2014 reading list – and its revision – again, though I keep adding the books that come across my desk to that ever expanding list so that’s not strictly true, I guess.) One of the neat things associated with this community read has been community “read-alouds“; groups have been meeting in different spots across the area to read from the novel and discuss the action. I participated in a read-aloud last evening. The nicest thing about the group was the age range – from middle schoolers to a crusty old writer/professor. We had a great time doing a  dramatic reading of the events from one section of this sprawling work. This is wonderful stuff in a rural community like ours and the mix of younger and older readers both sparks hope for the future in this particular reader and, I hope, provides those younger readers with role models and will encourage them to develop a life-long love of reading. Continue reading

Popular Culture

Sci-Fi and Fantasy: what’s with our obsession with dystopias and apocalypses?

Is the explanation for the current deluge of dystopian and apocalyptic books as simple as Milliennial anxiety? Maybe. Maybe not….

Aldous Huxley, author of “Brave New World,” one of the most famous dystopian tales (image courtesy Wikimedia)

In one of my typical “here’s what I’m writing for S&R this time” email conversations with “Chief Scrogue-in-Charge of Herding the Cats Who are the Scrogue Team” Sam Smith a couple of days ago, I mentioned that since I’m only part of the way through my latest reading endeavor (I’m trying to get through one of the most recent darling texts of the “sci-fi/fantasy dystopia/apocalypse” craze, Hugh Howey’s plodding – for me, anyway – dystopian epic called, aptly enough, Wool - and if you’re too young and ill-read to get the metaphor reference, I’m too old and past being patient to explain it), so I told Sam that for S&R’s ArtSunday feature this week I’d write a piece on the current fascination of a large swath of the reading public for anything that represents – in either sci-fi or fantasy terms – a dystopian or apocalyptic view of our future on Planet Earth.

Sam’s reply, as usual was to the point:

I think that’s a dissertation. Have you noticed the explosion of sci-fi, fantasy, speculative, and supernatural in TV and film in the past few years? Something is going on and I haven’t gotten my head around it yet.

Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys: is it the tale – or the teller?

Gaiman’s work owes something to Vonnegut, something to Douglas Adams, something to Sir James Fraser, and probably something to Hitchcock – and Monty Python…

I offer the following quote from a Wall Street Journal piece by Lev Grossman I cited last fall in an essay on storytelling and the Modernist tendency to force readers to struggle with artist’s literary experiments:

Writers like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tartt, Kelly Link, Audrey Niffenegger, Richard Price, Kate Atkinson, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke, to name just a few, are busily grafting the sophisticated, intensely aware literary language of Modernism onto the sturdy narrative roots of genre fiction: fantasy, science fiction, detective fiction, romance. They’re forging connections between literary spheres that have been hermetically sealed off from one another for a century.

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

In an essay about current reading habits and the disappearance of “serious literature,” I offered the following advice from Henry David Thoreau, a serious literature kind of guy:

Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind.

At the behest of several friends I’ve been moving away from my stodgy, comfortable literary fiction tastes and trying new writers strongly recommended by family, friends, and colleagues – among these have been the delightful Douglas Adams and the interesting, though not as interesting as I’d hoped, Terry Pratchett.

Neil Gaiman has been an oft mentioned choice  as someone “you really must read, Jim.” And so, having come across a copy of his 2005 novel Anansi Boys at a local second hand book store, I decided to give Gaiman a try. And while I can honestly say it’s a delightful and enlightening novel in many ways, I could not make a case for Anansi Boys as great literature.

The novel revisits characters from Gaiman’s (thus far) magnum opus American Gods.  In this book Mr. Nancy’s (Anansi, a mythical character who is a spider – the weaving of webs of story, communication, ideas is an integral part of the novel) sons, named Charles (called “Fat Charlie” for most of the work) and Spider, discover that they are brothers. This knowledge leads to complications involving embezzlement, murder, and romance. Suffice to say that it all works out in the end – Fat Charlie becomes Charles and discovers that he has some of the magic of a god within himself while Spider, who is part brother, part bother, part doppelganger, part bon vivant (like his father) finds a humanity he didn’t know he had. This realistic part of the narrative is interpolated with African-Caribbean mythology that both provides overview of the “human” story and allows Gaiman to play with magical realism while at the same time gently poking fun at that style of narrative. I am not entirely sure if Gaiman means to poke fun at magical realism. Perhaps he is exploring its possibilities within the fantasy framework. But if he is having a giggle at MR’s expense, I like him the better for it.

Some reviewers have called Anansi Boys a combination of Douglas AdamsP.G. Wodehouse and Monty Python. It’s more – and less – than that. Gaiman has obviously knows his mythology, and much of Anansi Boys provides lesson for readers about non-Western mythologies. He does so, too, in ways that both entertain the reader and that make sense within the narrative and offer gloss to the text that helps readers understand that, for example, the villain is a recurring character who will appear again and again in stories because it is an archetype. This he does always well, sometimes brilliantly – and for the astute reader who grasps the implications of what Gaiman is explaining about good and evil, this glossing infuses the tale with the creepiness of a great fairy tale.

Where the novel is not always pleasing is in the comic “realistic” narrative that drives the entire book. Fat Charlie – who does learn (that he has godlike abilities like his father and brother); who does meet a helper (Daisy Day, a beautiful cop who also becomes his love interest); who does gain a “magic sword” (his father’s Fedora) – who becomes a hero in the best Proppian tradition – is a clear riff on Arthur Dent (with some Bertie Wooster thrown in – likable enough, slightly doltish, maddeningly tolerant of mistreatment despite his protestations otherwise. And Spider owes a good deal to Zaphod Beeblebrox. So there’s that. There are jokes galore (some laugh out loud funny) and silly situations worthy of a Python skit. But it all seems done before. And as well or better elsewhere.

There’s also another problematic element (and maybe this is just me), one that occurs often in work with recurring characters/themes (the dreaded “series” that every science fiction and fantasy author seems intent upon). I spent the last 50 pages or so sensing that Gaiman was “setting up” the next work wherein these characters will appear. Now Gaiman is deft, indeed, a brilliant writer in many ways, and this was subtly and skillfully done. But I’m an astute reader and a pretty clever writer myself. So this bugged me. It was more noticeable in a work from a writer of Gaiman’s reputation – and skill – than it should have been.

Ultimately these flaws seem to me to make Anansi Boys fall short of the giddy heights of a work like Stoner by John Edward Williams. That is not to say that Gaiman is not a brilliant writer and that Anansi Boys is not a superior read. It means this: Neil Gaiman is indeed a wonderful writer and I look forward to reading further in his oeuvre. What it means is that for me, Anansi Boys is not one of those treasures Thoreau mentions above.

But Gaiman may a member be of Thoreau’s “natural and irresistible aristocracy.” Proving that will require, however, further investigation.