CATEGORY: CATEGORY: ArtSunday

James Street’s The Gauntlet: that old time religion…

James Street’s The Gauntlet, a novel about the trials of a young Southern Baptist minister in the 1920’s, will ring true, sometimes painfully so, for anyone who ever experienced small town church life….

The Gauntlet by James Street (image courtesy Goodreads)

From the literary efforts of arch poseur Jerzy Kosinski to the earnest writing of James Street is a pretty far leap, but I made it last week. I added this work to my “Southern, mainly North Carolinian” section of the 2015 reading list because I stumbled upon an account of Street’s untimely death in Chapel Hill, NC, in 1954 at the age of 50. That’s probably a rather macabre reason for adding a writer to a reading list, and certainly Street’s literary reputation is that of popular novelist rather than “serious” literary artist. The times we live in have pretty much eviscerated giving any form of art consideration by any other measure than “the marketplace,” however, and almost all of Street’s 17 novels were bestsellers in their time, so by current standards of literary excellence I can easily justify including him among those whose literary reputations might be more admired by the litfic crowd (of whom I’m a proud, card carrying member) whose achievements (and rewards) are too often intangible.

Besides, truth be told, Street is an able writer and The Gauntlet is a pretty good book that rings true in its depiction of small town church politics. Continue reading

ArtSunday

Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road: maybe Southerners aren’t merely caricatures…

Reading Caldwell’s Tobacco Road is reminiscent of watching an episode of Dukes of Hazzard and reading Flannery O’Connor at the same time… 

First, an anecdote:

Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell (image courtesy Goodreads)

Sometime back in my graduate school days I ran into an article in which the scholar spent a number of pages complaining that Charles Dickens didn’t create characters – rather, he created caricatures, exaggerated depictions of humanity. While I saw the guy’s point, it didn’t make me love Dickens any less. It seems to me Dickens’ caricatures (whether an Ebeneezer Scrooge or a Samuel Pickwick) vibrate with more of this thing we call life than most “realistic” literary characters (I’m looking at you, Emma Bovary).

Another anecdote:

I was a voracious reader as a child. Growing up as I did in the South, where for too many folks “reading” consisted of a) checking on how the Tarheels or Gamecocks or Cavaliers did, or b) reading (and usually badly misinterpreting) the Bible, my interests in books and learning made me both an anomaly and an object of suspicion, especially among my peers.

It also allowed me access to secret, forbidden worlds. Like the world of Erskine Caldwell. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Yukio Mishima and the struggle to be free…

“…I must point out that a memory which is suddenly revived carries a great power of resuscitation. The past does not only draw us back to the past. There are certain memories of the past that have strong steel springs and, when we who live in the present touch them, they are suddenly stretched taut and then they propel us into the future.” Yukio Mishima, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima (image courtesy Goodreads)

Sometimes one reads an author who makes one wonder what the hell the Nobel committee thinks about when it selects prize winners for literature. I had read some Yukio Mishima many years ago, during my undergraduate days, actually (Nixon was POTUS which should give you some idea of how long ago that was). Mishima’s strange death sparked my interest (I remember reading an article about him and his bizarre ending from, of all places, Life magazine at my parents’ home), so I had been on the lookout for one of his works. I ran into a used copy of his story collection Death in Midsummer and Other Stories  and remember thinking, in my idiosyncratic way, that the title story reminded me of Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” In fact, the collection resonates with the same sort of angst, alienation, and anger at the world/life/what ya got that pervades Salinger’s collection Nine Stories.

That same angst, alienation, and anger pervades The Temple of the Golden Pavilionone of the richest, finest novels a reader will find anywhere in literature. Reading such a powerful work makes one wonder how the Nobel committee ignored Mishima even as they rewarded his friend and mentor Yasunari Kawabata.  The answer to that question is like the answer to another question about the non-rewarding of literature’s most well-known prize that I asked last year: likely political in nature. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Strange Fruit: Lillian Smith deconstructs the South’s peculiar institutions…

“That’s the South’s trouble. Ignorant. Doesn’t know anything. Doesn’t even know what’s happening outside in the world! Shut itself up with its trouble and its ignorance until the two together have gnawed the sense out of it.” – Lillian Smith, Strange Fruit

Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith (image courtesy Goodreads)

Books come to us in all sorts of ways. Some come assigned; some come recommended; some come by accident. Strange Fruit, Lillian Smith’s powerful indictment of the Jim Crow South, came to me in that third way. I was browsing the “sell off” books at my local library when I came across this powerful novel and decided to buy it based solely on the title – which may or may not have come from the Billie Holiday classic about lynching. Once I had decided to divide my reading year into world lit/Southern lit groups, Strange Fruit became a natural choice for the latter group. Following as it does Peter Taylor’s brittle, elegant A Summons to Memphis and Harry Crews’s over the top Southern Gothic nightmare A Feast of Snakes, Strange Fruit is a book that synthesizes both of those views of the South – though it was written 40 years before the former and 30 years before the latter works.

This is a book with a remarkable history. Vilified as obscene, there were numerous attempts to ban the book. The controversy made the book a best seller, in fact the best selling novel of 1944. No less a personage than Eleanor Roosevelt became a champion of the book. Perhaps, as has often been noted, the greatest outrage over the book came when it became known that the author was a Southerner – and a white woman. A generation later, of course, a Southern white woman would become a national heroine – eventually a national treasure – by writing much the same story – only in a more saccharine treatmentContinue reading

Harry Crews’s A Feast of Snakes: as dirty as realism gets…

When a writer combines washed up All-American football players, sexually frustrated former majorettes, a rattlesnake roundup, a racist, rapist sheriff, and dog fighting and sets it all in the rural South, one expects pretty much what Harry Crews gives us – a darkly tragicomic tale that delights even as it gives one the willies.

A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews (image courtesy Goodreads)

Another entry from the 2015 reading list’s Southern section is the subject of this essay. Like Richard Ford, about whom I have written, Harry Crews is another practitioner, whether he’d admit to it or not, of the literary style called dirty realism. He certainly provides a powerful example of SouthernGothic entertainment, too, as A Feast of Snakes, his eight novel, shows.

And perhaps that’s an important point to make about this novel. What makes A Feast of Snakes a powerful read is that for both those who like their Southern lit on the Gothic side, there’s plenty of the grotesque, eccentric, and sinister. For those who, like me, appreciate the economy of style and and cold-blooded examination of those in the lower ranks of the 99%, Harry Crews offers a novel that both delivers plenty of weirdness and plenty of honest examination of the wretched. From snake handling preachers to body building lawyers, this is a book with a little something for everyone. 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

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

ArtSunday: LIterature

Hermann Hesse’s Demian: The Quest for the Self

“I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?” Hermann Hesse

Demian by Hermann Hesse (image courtesy Goodreads)

We turn in this next essay from the subtle, Zen inflected musings of Kawabata to another Nobelist, this one a lifelong yearning seeker of self understanding. In the original 2015 reading list I had chosen Hesse’s novel describing an artist’s search for spiritual fulfillment, Rosshalde, as my selection from the novelist whose lasting reputation owes as much to his adoption as spokesperson by the Boomer generation (a mistaken adoption) as to his literary merit (which is real). Instead, when it came time to pull Rosshalde from the shelf, I took it down and thought about how many times I’ve read Siddhartha which is a better treatment of the same themes as the earlier novel. Instead, I pulled out the Hesse novel next to Rosshalde, the lesser known and equally fascinating bildungsroman, Demian.

It turned out to be an interesting choice. I had not read Demian for many years, at least since the mid-seventies. Like most of my generation, I’d read Steppenwolf and Siddhartha as an undergraduate, taken in by the mystique attached to both books: in the case of the former, the “magic theater” section that suggests psychedelia (though there is no proof anywhere that Hesse ever used drugs) and in the latter its fable like retelling of the life of the Buddha. Both were, of course, very groovy, read in those heady times. But by the time I came to Demian I was a young teacher and part-time graduate student and had learned a bit more about the author Hesse besides that he wrote groovy books. I approached this tale of a youth’s search for self understanding, self confidence, and self acceptance in a more critical fashion. My assessment from that reading was that the novel was simply a quest narrative wrapped up in a bildungsroman.

All these years later, Demian is still that. Continue reading

Religious Freedom Restoration Act: it’s Schroedinger’s Discrimination Law

Indiana Governor Mike Pence wants to “fix” the state’s controversial new law.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence aggressively defended Indiana’s religious freedom law Tuesday but said he wants a bill on his desk by week’s end “making it clear the law does not allow businesses the right to deny services to anyone.”

“This law does not give anyone the right to discriminate,” Pence said at a news conference.

Okay, I’ll play along. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Andre Gide’s Corydon: Defending who you are…

“It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for something you are not.”                                                                                                                                                – André Gide

Corydon by Andre Gide (image courtesy Goodreads)

The complex and provocative André Gide is known for his unconventional examinations of morality in which he usually pits the conventions of accepted public morals against the  individual moral (sometimes amoral) views of his characters. In novels such a The Immoralist, Strait is the Gate, and The Vatican Cellars Gide explores alternate lifestyles, failed relationships, and Nietzschean acts of ubermensch-iness for both tragic and comic effect. These works won Gide the Nobel Prize in 1947.

I’ve read all of the above mentioned works by Gide. My favorite is The Vatican Cellars (Les Caves du Vatican), a comic adventure that crosses elements of The DaVinci Code sort of conspiracy theory nonsense with Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. In the hands of an arch satirist like Gide, a plot about saving the Pope from the machinations of the Masons goes sideways because of the actions of a Raskolnikovean sort of ne’er-do-well named Lafcadio who decides that what he really needs to do with his life is kill someone at random so that there is no motive at all to connect him to the murder. Unfortunately, the man he decides to kill turns out to be a vital cog in the aforementioned Pope v. Masons business. Hilarity of the darkest shades ensues. Really. It’s a very funny book – in dark, dark ways.

Unfortunately, this sort of funny stuff was an anomaly in Gide’s oeuvre. He mainly focuses on the unhappy effects of rebelling against (L’immoraliste) or falling prey to (La porte étroite) accepted social and cultural institutions and behaviors. Corydon, his attempt to justify homosexuality as a natural human behavior, is firmly on the serious side of the Gide ledger. Continue reading

CATEGORY: WordsDay

Thomas Mann’s Joseph the Provider: the truth of the story….

“Any attempt to examine the moral foundations of our exceedingly complicated world requires a certain amount of learning.” – Thomas Mann, Joseph the Provider

Thomas Mann (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Since Alfred Nobel established his prizes at the turn of the 20th century, there have been any number of recipients who have been, shall we say, arguable choices. The two prize areas where perhaps the greatest arguments have occurred have been the prize areas for peace and literature. On at least two occasions I have weighed in myself, once concerning Peter Handke, once concerning why the Nobel committee has refused to award an American writer the literature Nobel since Toni Morrison in 1993.

In making my way through the world literature section of the 2015 reading list, I’ll be looking at several literature Nobel winners including Sigrid Undset, Andre Gide, Herman Hesse, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Yasunari Kawabati. In the case of finalists not selected, such as Yukio Mishima from the reading list and the aforementioned Handke, their non-selection has spurred argument and controversy proving yet again the truth in that old and variously attributed adage, all art is political.

Thomas Mann won the literature Nobel in 1929. If one has read Mann’s work, one knows the Nobel committee got his selection right.

To Joseph the ProviderContinue reading

For Women’s History Month – books by American women that changed the world

The Yellow Wallpaper is especially important to me because I struggled greatly with depression and mental illness during four years of physical confinement within a very patriarchal marriage. Read it in full here. Also, Jane Addams is especially a hero of mine. She had so many pots boiling at once – I don’t know how she did it. I hope you will follow the link below and read more about her. Continue reading

Woman-Power

For women’s history month, women you’ve probably never heard of – Dominique Christina

It is Women’s History Month and my goal is to post about a different woman every day for the rest of March.

Dominique Christina is a poet, artist, activist, educator, author and self-described “colored girl with stars for eyes.”  She is also the only person to hold two national titles for slam poetry at one time and is the only poet in history to win the Women of the World Poetry Championship twice. A former 1996 Olympic Volleyball player, Dominique has over 10 years of experience as a licensed teacher, holding double Masters degrees in Education and English Literature. She conducts performances/workshops all over the country for colleges, universities, nonprofit organizations, and conferences like the LOHAS forum in Boulder, Colorado. She does branding and marketing language for companies like Lotus Wei and Gaia. She is the niece of one of the Little Rock Nine. She sometimes performs with Denice Frohman as Sister Outsider, the duo representing two of the top three female slam poets in the world. Continue reading

On Netanyahu’s address to Congress, Lee Zeldin hits the nail

Just not on the head

NYT reports: Netanyahu’s Visit Bringing Uninvited Problems for Jewish Democrats

“Regardless of whether you are Jewish or not Jewish, Republican or Democrat, if you greatly value having the strongest relationship possible with Israel, welcoming the Israeli prime minister to America with open arms should be something members fully embrace,” he [Rep. Lee Zeldin] said. “It is an opportunity to let not just the Israeli prime minister know, but the Israeli people know, that America is united in strengthening our relationship with Israel.”

It’s also an opportunity to let Bibi and the Israeli people know that America is clearly not so united in strengthening that relationship as they would like to think. Continue reading

ISIS 2

Muslims and Christians and fundamentalists and progressives: why our arguments are missing the point

ISIS 2We have this little Point/Counterpoint going today in posts from Josh Booth and Otherwise, and in a lot of respects they are reproducing a debate that has raged for a very long time.

The problem with this argument, writ large, is that it fundamentally sidesteps a critical question – perhaps the question. We argue about whether religion X advocates Y or Z, and we frequently hear proponents of one side or another contend that proponents of the other view aren’t “real” members of the religion. The Sacred Text says thing A unambiguously, and the other faction contravenes A at every turn. The apostates then do the same thing, using thing B as evidence. Lather, rinse, repeat, and the bloodbath goes on for centuries. Continue reading

Religion

Obama is wrong: Islamic beliefs are incompatible with the modern world

Islamic terrorists aren’t attacking churches, they’re attacking schools and newspapers.

Ipoint-counterpointn 2001, Bush called for a “crusade” against Islamic terrorists. His choice of words caused many to cringe, although as it turned out he was on the money. The last thirteen years have been a never-ending battle between Judeo-Christians and Muslims that has destroyed much of the Mideast, just like Crusades 1.0. Also just like the original crusades, this latest effort has been a colossal rort, rife with waste, chicanery, profiteering and downright theft. Bush said “crusade,” and by golly, he meant it. (In fact, you could probably argue that most wars we fought in the 20th Century were crusades, from WWII to Vietnam, where the uber-Catholic Dulles brothers supported the Catholic Diem against Ho Chi Minh, to our cold war on “godless Communism.”) Continue reading

Book-Review

The ink dark moon: Medieval Japanese poetry…

As women members of the Heian court of medieval Japan, poets Ono no Kamachi and Izumi Shikibu lived lives that were proscribed and governed by artifice. Through poetry they found ways of expressing their feelings and insights about those lives. 

The Ink Dark Moon – Ono no Kamachi and Izumi Shikibu – translated by Jane Hirschfield and Mariko Aratani (image courtesy Goodreads)

This book from the 2015 reading list was recommended to me by my wife Lea who has a deep affection for, appreciation of, and skill at Asian poetry and its forms. The Ink Dark Moon is a collection of poems by two women of the Heian period of Japanese history. This particular period of Japanese history was one of great cultural achievement in both art and literature. Interestingly, most of the outstanding poets of the period are women and the two poets represented in this work, Ono no Kamachi and Izumi Shikibu, are perhaps the finest of these poets.

The dominant verse form used by the poets is the Japanese classical waka in its short form known as the tanka. In Japanese a tanka has 31 syllables arranged  in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern. (One can compare this to the more familiar haiku which is even briefer and which follows, in Japanese, a syllabic pattern of 5-7-5.)

[Note: these syllabic forms are impossible to reproduce in English because of the difference between an inflection-based language like Japanese and a word order based language like English. This translation by Hirschfield and Aratani does an admirable – indeed, a remarkable – job of bridging the gap, but the translations are that – translations. They are not literal word-for-word reproductions of the works of Kamachi or Shikibu.] Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

The art of war as explained by a simpleton…

Call it Simplicius Simplicissimus or The Adventures of a Simpleton – H.J.C. von Grimmelshausen’s picaresque novel of the Thirty Years War is the godfather of all great anti-war literature whether solemn indictment like The Red Badge of Courage or All Quiet on the Western Front or absurdist comedy like Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse-Five

The Adventures of a Simpleton also known as Simplicius Simplicissimus (image courtesy Goodreads)

The Adventures of a Simpleton, also know as Simplicius Simplicissimus (and by other titles) is a book that I have long loved, though this re-read is only my third of this classic satire of the lethal nonsense we call war. The edition I used this time was one I picked up in my favorite used bookstore, my original copy from undergraduate school having disappeared on its own picaresque adventures at some unknown moment in the last 40 years. This entry on the 2015 reading list moves us forward in time several hundred years from the folk literature (with some Horace thrown in) of the last few weeks. As a result we get a known author (although we don’t know a lot about him) and we get our first prose work since those outliers about World War I and John Winthrop I wrote about at the beginning of the year.

More interestingly, from a literary standpoint anyway, we get what will come to be called variously a novel, a mock-heroic romance, a picaresque novel, or a picaresque. The adventures of the hero, initially called Simplicius because of his naivete (and because discovering his real name, indeed his true identity, becomes an important subplot of the work) are episodic, disjointed, and certainly varied. Continue reading