ArtSunday: LIterature

Nature in Focus: Sharp Eyes by William Hamilton Gibson

Once upon a time readers actually wanted to learn from books…

Sharp Eyes by William Hamilton Gibson (image courtesy Goodreads)

After a spate of book reviews for new found writer friends, this essay takes a look at a book from the 2014 reading list Sharp Eyes: A Rambler’s Calendar of Fifty-two Weeks Among Insects, Birds, and Flowers  is a series of descriptions and discussions of weekly nature walks. It’s one of those wonderful late 19th century “educational” works that does its best to disguise itself as entertainment.

The book is an interesting relic of the late 19th century’s “naturalist” movement inspired, in part at least, by Henry David Thoreau. Naturalist, illustrator, and writer William Hamilton Gibson offers his observations of the New England woods around his Connecticut home. Sharp Eyes is heavy with mini-lectures in botany and entomology (one wishes for more about birds since those are for this reader the most interesting chapters) but Gibson writes in the literary journalist style of late 19th century American magazine work, so even the most tedious science lessons are larded with references to poetry and philosophy that leaven the scientific descriptions and explanations…. Continue reading

Tokyo Panic Stories: a city of the dead

Touring a Japanese graveyard…

The surreality of it was astounding. In Minami-senju, Tokyo, while I was looking for the barely- and roughly-living, through a haze of my own cigarette smoke I found a city of the dead. I savored the irony of that.

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ArtSunday: S— Rock Stars Say…

“I was always wondering did they like me or did they like my songs.” – Neil Young

The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Quote Book by Merrit Molloy (image courtesy Goodreads)

Had some errands this week that took me close – too close – to my favorite used bookstore. My wife had a doctor’s appointment later that day and since I had come away without anything to read, I, of course, bought a couple more books.

Hi, My name is Jim and I have a problem with books….

Anyway, I ran across the marvelous waste of time, The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Quote Book by Merrit Molloy. This slight volume (you can finish it in a couple of hours tops with breaks for whatever you need to take breaks for) is larded with quotes ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. And as you read you can guess which musicians will say which types of things. Continue reading


Tove Jansson, Magician

Republication of Sculptor’s Daughter reminds us of the magic in memories.

Tove Jansson’s 1968 autobiography, Sculptor’s Daughter, has just been republished in a handsome edition by Sort Of Books here in London, and I gather it has made a reappearance elsewhere as well. Like Jansson’s other books for adults, it’s actually a collection of short stories—in some cases, very short. Here, they are linked, as is the case in The Summer Book or Art in Nature, for example, by a specific theme—in this case, Jansson’s childhood memories. There’s nothing particularly chronological about the events in the book—each story has a real event at its core, but there’s no order to the stories themselves. And in many of the stories, the point is not the event, but what Jansson’s childhood imagination has made of it.

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CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature

Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky and the issue of near-greatness

To paraphrase the philosopher, to be near-great may be to be misunderstood…

This essay will no doubt illuminate some of my idiosyncrasies as a reader and writer.

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Anyone who has devoted him/herself to reading and writing, whether as vocation (as I and some others have) or as avocation (as many more others have), occasionally has those times of reflection when we look back over our pursuits and spot occasional gaps in our literary educations. You know what I mean: we look over one or another of those lists of “greatest books” or “books everyone with a functioning brain should read” and note a work that makes us say, “How have I overlooked that book?” If you’re like me (and I hope your neuroses don’t extend, as mine do, to thinking you should have read every writer mentioned in, say, The Norton Anthology series), you then find yourself scrambling to address your perceived gaps in your literary education. Such, such is the nature of a certain kind of literary OCD.

It’s in that spirit that I added the book which is the subject of this essay to the 2014 reading list. Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky is one of those books that gets quoted often, and referred to oftener by its admirers. And it is a book with some memorable quotes. At least one deserves inclusion here. Here’s the most famous: Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Nicholson Baker’s Room Temperature: things we can do with words

A darling of literary fiction can actually write a pretty intriguing book -keep the dictionary handy…

To move from the wildly popular Hunger Games to Room Temperature by Nicholson Baker is quite a leap for any reader – but, I’ve made it. So this entry from the 2014 reading list is an essay that will look at what characterizes literary fiction. And how it can be both rewarding and a little maddening to engage with a master practitioner of the form.

Of course, the chief characteristic of literary fiction is that it has that amorphous (and arguable) quality known as literary merit. As a rule, the sorts of things that give literary merit are complex characterizations, realistic situations and emotional expressions, and some attempt to get at that problematic goal called truth. (The truth in this case falling more likely into that category of activity that Aristotle terms phronesis, or ” gaining cultural truth,” rather than scientific/observational discovery which the great philosopher terms theoria.) But I suppose it would only be fair to Aristotle to note that he does say that art (which great literature is) is itself another activity, poiesis. Okay, enough of this – I’m beginning to sound like Nicholson Baker. Continue reading

ArtSunday: Larissa Takes Flight, by Teresa Milbrodt – review

In which we learn that saving the world is not so very different from selling shoes when one stops and thinks about it…

Larissa Takes Flight by Teresa Milbrodt (image courtesy Goodreads)

The always interesting Teresa Milbrodt’s latest story collection, Larissa Takes Flight, is what the publisher calls a “pastiche novel.” I know something about these having published a couple of my own,  so I feel relatively qualified to ramble on a little about this work in my own inimitable, if slightly eccentric style.

Larissa – and her adventures – cover two wide swaths of American culture: Milbrodt’s own special blend of the mundanity of  current American life with the epic (or, perhaps, mock-epic) and legendary which one writer colleague has called “Midwestern Mythic” as well as the author’s take on life as part of that sociological group we most often see referred to as “Gen X.”

The book is composed of a series of 58 flash fictions (though some are better considered short-short stories) that cover most of the areas of daily experience in the 21st century (“Larissa Loses Her Job,” “Larissa Gets a Credit Card,” “Larissa and Computer Problems”). Of course, given that “Midwestern Mythic” thing I mentioned, there’s plenty of unusual goings on (“Larissa and the Closet Monster,” “Larissa and Vampires,” “Larissa and the Genie”). Continue reading


П is for Pussy Riot: thinking ahead to the next Russian Olympic Games

Pussy Riot’s commitment to social justice in the motherland is more than admirable. It perhaps merits a spot in Russia’s artistic canon.

The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia closed today, and if you set aside the homophobia and generally strong-armed approach to governance by the host, one Vladimir Putin, these games were remarkable in just about every way.

The images of the opening ceremonies have lingered with me for the past couple of weeks. If you watched, you know that the creative team built their narrative around the highwater marks in the nation’s glorious history, honoring their accomplishments in the arts, literature, science and technology. Given Russia’s considerable heritage, the little girl’s interaction with Cyrillic alphabet primer, associating a historical moment with each letter, couldn’t help being an impressive reminder to the world of the nation’s rich cultural legacy. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Christine de Pizan – and whatever medieval feminism is…

Maybe feminism isn’t all that recent as a social movement – or, “we built this city on women’s roles…”

The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan (image courtesy Goodreads)

One of the tendencies of modern scholarship has been to “re-interpret” texts from other historical eras in light of modern (or postmodern – or post-postmodern) sensibilities. My most recent completed work from the 2014 reading list (I’m a little behind now due to some family matters) is by 14th/15th century author Christine de Pizan. The Book of the City of Ladies is typically medieval. Its author uses much material from “other sources” – which is medieval-speak for “borrowing” freely from both classical and contemporary sources – and the work is itself allegorical – the “city” of the title is actually de Pizan’s book.

The premise of the book is, however, anything but medieval. Christine de Pizan explains that she is “building the city” at the behest of three virtues (all represented in feminine form, of course): Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. These virtues – which are cardinal virtues of women, Pizan is subtly arguing – have appeared to Pizan in a dream in order to help her defend the intelligence, honor, and integrity of women. Women’s intelligence, honor, and integrity have been maligned, primarily, Pizan explains, at the hands of two groups of men – theologians and courtly romance writers. Theologians, despite their elevation of the Virgin Mary to a status nearly equal to that of Christ, primarily depict women as the source of mankind’s trouble dating back to the original troublemaker Eve. Courtly romance writers such as Jean de Meun in Roman de la Rose portray women primarily as sexual objects – creatures to be used for male pleasure and amusement with little or no thought given to their sense or feelings. Continue reading


What we talk about when we talk about The Beatles…

On the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, perhaps it’s time to clarify what we mean when we say “The Beatles…”

beatles_2Tonight will be the 50th anniversary of the advent of what most people think of as “The Sixties.” The avalanche of commentary  that has accompanied this anniversary ranges from the hagiographic to the asinine, much of it driven by the political ethos that infuses every aspect of our lives these days. “If only these white guys hadn’t spoiled everything, other artists (implied: more worthwhile) would be more appreciated and influential”; “Without The Beatles no other artists (implied: no matter how clearly brilliant and innovative they were/are) could have accomplished the task of changing the culture.”

None of them spend much time on trying to discover and understand the simple truths of The Beatles as part of the American experience….

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Mark Sumioka’s The Threshold of Insult: the things we do for love

The dark side of the 1970′s – family disintegration, existential angst, and other snakes in Southern California’s Eden emerge in Sumioka’s debut novel….

The Threshold of Insult by Mark Sumioka (image courtesy Amazon)

Mark Sumioka’s The Threshold of Insult is the first full length novel from a writer whose gritty, realistic fiction has graced the pages of a number of literary journals, including Scholars and Rogues. The same skills of capturing characters’ distinctive nuances and situations’ subtle breaking points that characterize Sumioka’s short fiction serve him well in this first attempt at fiction’s major genre.

The novel recounts the story of an unhappy family, Carl and Jessica Rose and their son Randy. Carl hates his job and feels trapped by his marriage and son. His wife Jessica, called Jess through most of the novel, feels trapped as Carl does, her suffering exacerbated by her low self-esteem and sense of dissatisfaction in her role as traditional housewife. Their son Randy, troubled by the tensions in his parents’ relationship, has his young life complicated and ultimately damaged by the unhealthy attentions of a seemingly kind neighbor, Van Witherspoon. The complex dynamics of the relationships of these four characters form the crux of the novel’s main story line. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

A sensible woman: Jane Austen criticizes Romanticism…

Marianne Dashwood, the epitome of sensibility, is the heroine Jane Austen most disapproves of…

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (image courtesy Goodreads)

The six complete Jane Austen novels divide into three interesting pairs. There are the “place” titles – Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park – both of which critique the heroine’s naivete. Emma and Persuasion – the “one word” titles – focus on, in the former case, the consequences of a young woman with too much self-confidence and, in the latter case, the consequences of an older woman’s youthful lack of self-confidence. Finally, there are the “characteristics” titles – Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice – that, via characters in each novel who exhibit behaviors related to the titular characteristics, allow the author to show, in the latter work, how the character weaknesses of the novels’ most important couple, once overcome, lead to marital bliss – and, in the former work, contrast sisters who represent both sense (careful behavior based on rational application of one’s understanding of social mores) and sensibility (the insistence that the personal emotional response, however idiosyncratic and dismissive of social mores it might be, is the only “true” way to live one’s life). Continue reading

Arts and Literature

ArtSunday: My Terry Pratchett Problem…the “there” there….

To paraphrase Jimi, there are writers – make that readers – I do not understand…

The Discworld Graphic Novels (The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic) by Terry Pratchett (image courtesy Goodreads)

I admit readily that I am no fan of science fiction and fantasy. I like Tolkien fine, but having read the Rings trilogy in college and The Hobbit my first year out of undergrad school for my first teaching job, I have felt absolutely no urge/desire/itch/yen to read those works again. During that same period of my life I read the Asimov Foundation trilogy, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and Frank Herbert’s Dune, all at the behest of friends whose intelligence and taste I respect deeply. I found them interesting, as I find any well told story interesting, but I was not been inspired to read more by Asimov, Heinlein, or Herbert. See first sentence of paragraph.

Around the time that I read The Hobbit, I stumbled upon Phillip K. Dick (remember, I am not an activist sci-fi reader). I enjoyed Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – yet I have read no other Phillip K. Dick.

Later on younger friends whose intelligence and taste I respect pushed me to wrestle with one of sci-fi’s cousins, cyberpunk. I dutifully read Gibson’s Neuromancer and a story or two by Bruce Sterling. Interesting stuff – but, as you’ve guessed by now, I’ve read no more. Continue reading


An Insider’s Guide to Publishing, or why does anybody want to be a writer?

“Mad, bad, and dangerous to know” applies not just to Lord Byron but to every writer…

An Insider’s Guide to Publishing by David Comfort (image courtesy Goodreads)

David Comfort’s latest book, An Insider’s Guide to Publishing, is not the “nuts and bolts” sort of a book you’d expect from its title. Instead, Comfort has written a longish (nearly 300 pages) compendium of anecdotes, explanations, analyses, and observations on writers and writing, the publishing industry past and present, and the role of technology in that past, present, and future of literature.

The book is alternately charming and churlish, funny and depressing, and, well, engrossing. Unlike most books in this genre, Comfort doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to convince the reader that “if you do this, you’ll be the next E.L. James” (the author of the mega success Fifty Shades of Grey). Instead, he delves into the story of E.L. James and explains – carefully but tongue firmly in cheek – how a writer who can’t write worth a damn can make $1 million per week from sales of what is popularly called “Mommy porn.” Continue reading