One day I got trapped in a television…

…in a hotel room in San Juan Bautista, California.

My wife and I had been having a lovely time until then.

I am fortunate she returned from the hotel pool in time

to switch off the set.

If she hadn’t, I might have ended up on Fox News.

(Picture taken in San Juan Bautista, California on June 22nd, 2013)

ArtSunday

Pride and Prejudice: The Romance Novel as Literature…

Amid current discussions of how genre fiction and literature are merging in the 21st century, Pride and Prejudice is a reminder that the genre of romance merged with literature a long, long time ago…

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (image courtesy Goodreads)

As I have noted before, my custom of re-reading Austen’s works systematically has shifted from reading all six of the completed novels each year (as I did for more than two decades) to a rotation through the oeuvre of that allows me to read two novels each year. My own background as an Austen scholar has given me cause to give each of the novels “close reading” (the scholarly term for close analytic reading of a text to ferret out meaning) numbers of times. Still, each time I return to any of Jane Austen’s novels, I find myself surprised by what I learn.

Such was the case during this reading of what the general public consider Austen’s masterpiece, Pride and Prejudice. It is certainly her most widely read work, partly because there seems to have long been a belief among educators that it is her most accessible novel (I’d argue for Emma) and partly, I suppose, because it has enjoyed the most attention over the last century or so as the basis for classic Hollywood bowdlerizations, faithful and thoughtful BBC renderings, and hipster revisionist treatments. It says something for the greatness of the book that it has borne all these cinematic renditions without losing any of its charm as entertainment or any of its impressiveness as a literary performance. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Karl Ove Knausgaard, Thomas Wolfe, Marcel Proust…Life is – How We Write It…?

While some authors have chosen to follow a literary path called transrealism, Knausgaard has chosen a path one might call hyperrealism. The question always rises rises again, however: is there nothing new under the sun…?

Karl Ove Knausgaard (image courtesy Wikimedia)

A little more than a week ago I examined yet another attempt to claim that a new literary movement has arisen. That new movement, called transrealism, has its promoters, but it also has its doubters (including this guy). In this essay we take a look at what may/may not be a new 21st century literary movement – one I’m denominating hyperrealism. The best way to look at such a movement is, of course, by examining the work of the author who is probably its leading proponent, Norwegian literary star Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Knausgaard’s massive six volume documentation of his own life in excruciating detail is called, in English My Struggle. In Norwegian that title reads Min Kamp – and yep, you’re right that his title echoes a book that gives most sensible people the creeps. Knausgaard’s book has pretty much nothing to do with Der Fuhrer’s opus magnum but a lot to do with some other, weightier, literary figures. Whether he chose the title simply to spark some controversy – well, why would any author want to do that in a culture that is so distracted it can’t pay attention to any damned thing for longer than the time it takes to scroll down a Facebook feed? Hmm? Continue reading

Music and Popular Culture

Sir Paul the Evangelist: McCartney gets a bad rap

A Paul McCartney show these days is a music history lesson wrapped in a plea for understanding with a side order of “Remember when they made music and you actually cared about knowing the words…?”

Sir Paul McCartney (image courtesy imdb)

Sir Paul gets a bad rap.

Part of this I attribute to the influence of a certain generation of music critics, those for whom the term “snark” might have been invented, and many of whom resent anything and everything Beatle related. They have long crusaded against all things Beatle and especially against Macca, because he’s not John and because he’s not George, and because – Wings (which had its terrific moments and some damned silly ones, too).

Then, too, Sir Paul made that unforgivable decision, the one either Dave Marsh or Greil Marcus (I forget which – and that says something about the importance of critics vis a vis artists, kids) called “the decision for pop.” He’s focused on writing songs that get denominated pop no matter how hard they rock or how brilliantly they incorporate his many musical influences. The Cute Beatle he is the The Cute Beatle he shall remain. I have a response – and I know I don’t speak for Paul – but I wish I did, because I’d say… Continue reading

LaRouche

Lyndon LaRouche à go-go: batshit fringe by the Bay

The batshit crazy fringe flexes its free speech muscles a little too close to this photographer’s home…

Brisbane, California isn’t a particularly radical town, but it is pretty politically liberal (with a decent-sized side dish of libertarianism). As such, it was surprising to see supporters of controversial American political oddity Lyndon LaRouche doing some vocal and insistent recruiting on a public sidewalk in front of Brisbane’s post office.

(The LaRouche propaganda tableau in front of Brisbane’s post office, which is right at the biggest intersection in town, which means everyone driving in and out of Brisbane while the LaRouche people were there was forced to see President Obama’s defaced picture.)

Continue reading

Tokyo Freedom

Stopping in for a drink in a small, beautiful Tokyo dive…

The tiny neighborhood bars and watering holes distributed throughout Tokyo are probably as numerous as the stars on a clear night in the Himalayas. Perversely, they’re often the kinds of places that are easy to miss, at least in the daytime, even if a given joint is open when one happens to walk by.

But sometimes one can pass a Tokyo bar, even a run-down looking place, and feel strangely drawn to it somehow. Something about it catches the eye, perhaps the way it’s painted or how the bar’s name is displayed on the street. And suddenly one finds oneself walking into the joint even if one wasn’t originally in the mood for a drink.

Freedom in Nakano 5-chome is that kind of place, an unassuming little neighborhood bar that doesn’t look like much on the outside, but had an allure that made going inside an unexpected but rich Tokyo experience…

Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Angry bards and Amazon reviewers…

In which one author tells another, to paraphrase one well known critic, nothing can please many nor please long but representations by the general public…

One hopes book reviewers read the books they review (image courtesy Wikimedia)

In a recent New Republic essay, author Jennifer Weiner takes author Margo Howard to task. Weiner’s reason for castigating Howard? Howard seems to have reacted negatively to some of the reviews she received on Amazon.

Okay, stop laughing at the Weiner’s intentional or unintentional disingenuousness and bear with me as we discuss this. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

The final, hopefully completely updated 2014 reading list…

“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” – Oscar Wilde

This is a stack of books. There are lots of these at my house. (image courtesy freedigitalphotos.net)

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

After several threats to do so, I finally take a bit of time to update the 2014 reading list. Several elements have played into the list expanding well beyond its original limits: new friendships with publishers who asked me to review books, interesting finds at used book stores, decisions to read books so I’d know a little better what I was talking about when I castigated their authors.

So here we go. This, I hope, will catch up the 2014 reading list. Anything else that swims into view will go on the 2015 reading list. (I offer links for books that I have already written essays about.) Continue reading

Ello

Ello: some interesting follow recommendations for our new social network

Watercolor 2012, by @laura_d

There’s been some back and forth here in the last couple of weeks about Ello, the new social network. If you’re on Ello, or are thinking of joining, here are some people you might want to investigate and possibly follow.

Let’s start with the S&R folks. @docdenny is, as you know, god of macro photography, and lately he’s been experimenting with some new toys and techniques that visually bridge the space between photography and painting.

Our boy @sirpaulsbuddy is fighting the good fight. Continue reading

CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature

It’s a Southern thing…Shelby Foote’s Love in a Dry Season

Shelby Foote’s tale of upper class Southerners behaving badly is redolent with that peculiarly disturbing characteristic called “Southernness…”

Love in a Dry Season by Shelby Foote (image courtesy Goodreads)

Let me me do what any good Southerner would do when asked for an explanation – tell you a story…

When I was writing the original draft of my novel The New Southern Gentleman, I had the ear (and the somewhat bemused interest) of a New York editor who was, I remember, working at that time for Henry Holt. He read a good chunk of the manuscript and recommended that I contact a writer friend of his, a fellow by the name of Walker Percy, even going so far as to send me Percy’s home address. I wrote to that estimable personage, author of a work I found influential, The Last Gentleman, and therefrom ensued a somewhat brief but memorable correspondence. One suggestion that Percy made I ignored – not out of disdain for the advice, which was excellent I now know, but out of what we might call “the anxiety of influence.” After reading several chapters of my manuscript, he recommended that I read “my friend Shelby’s book Love in a Dry Season.” (For those of you who don’t know, Walker Percy and Shelby Foote were best friends for 60 years.)

It was a sin of omission I have now corrected. My apologies, Mr. Percy, for delaying so long in taking your insightful advice. Love in a Dry Season is a marvelous novel, not just for its ability to compel you to read a novel about people you don’t much like, but, too, for its inherent grasp of how to convey what being Southern means.

So now, to help you understand this assessment, here’s another story.  Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Ben Ames Williams’s The Strange Woman and Art as Commerce….

Almost forgotten as a writer now, Ben Ames Williams’s novels and stories represent the most interesting of American literary legacies – market driven art….

The Strange Woman by Ben Ames Williams (image courtesy Goodreads)

This essay concerns one of the novels of Ben Ames Williams. If you’re asking yourself “Who?” be assured that you’re not alone. A very successful “popular fiction” writer of the first half of the 20th century, Williams is almost forgotten now.  The novel we’ll be discussing shortly is called The Strange Woman and was published when Williams was at the height of his popularity.  The novel itself is…okay. The writer who produced it is fascinating as an example of a writer who made his creative decisions with a watchful eye to the market and whose oeuvre, as a result reflects that watchfulness – and whose literary reputation also reflects that watchfulness.

I have written on multiple occasions about the American reading public’s interests, partly because I have wanted to understand the literary marketplace better myself, partly because as a writer who now lives in the purgatory assigned to the vast majority of those who write “literary fiction,” I have often looked with envy at those who have been able to navigate the labyrinth of American publishing in ways that have given them great success – both popular and financial (let me note here that no artist is averse to making money, no matter how much he/she may protest that art should be an act of illumination for humanity and money be damned). Continue reading

Arts & Literature

Peter Handke, the Nobel Prize, and the Weight of the World…

Handke, Austria’s (arguably the world’s) greatest living writer, will probably never get the Nobel…and maybe he shouldn’t…or should…

Peter Handke (image courtesy Wikimedia)

For some readers of this piece, the name Peter Handke will probably suggest only controversy. Handke has spent the last two decades of his life under attack for his association with – and inexplicable defense of - the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic. No less a personage than fellow Nobelist-in-waiting Salman Rushdie has called Handke a propagandist for the Milosevic government’s genocidal policies. When Handke received the International Ibsen Award earlier this year, Pen Norway called for the selection jury’s resignation and one scholar called giving Handke the award the equivalent of giving the Immanuel Kant Prize to Joseph Goebbels. Other important literary figures have defended Handke stating that he deserves the Nobel Prize – one claiming that she received the prize when Handke was the more worthy recipient.

All this comes as no surprise – troubling though it is – to me. I’ve been an admirer of Handke’s work since I was introduced to him in undergraduate school. What grabbed me initially was his “anti-play” Offending the Audience. Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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