Thursday, May 31, 2012

Review: Blue Nights, by Joan Didion

This is another book I picked up in delayed response to New York Publishing’s relentless buzz machine. I’d heard enough about it over the past year or so to want to give it a shot. It’s a companion volume to Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking,  a memoir about the loss of her husband, but this one tackles her response to the death of the couple’s only child.

It’s an honest, probing memoir that makes no apologies for illegal alien housekeepers, Manhattan apartments big enough for 13 telephones or for the life of unbound privilege she and her husband gave to their adopted daughter (though she would quibble with you about the definition of ‘privilege.’) But there is also an undertone of lamentation and self-searching as she wonders whether her many choices as a mother constituted raising her daughter more like a doll than a little girl.

It’s not really our practice to comment on the parenting skills of an author, so I’ll tackle her prose instead. I’d never read Didion before (fiction or  non-fiction) and I have to say that the writing is quite beautiful. Didion undoubtedly has a wonderful way with words, but she has a tendency to repeat words and lists and phrases for rhetorical effect:

“Was I the problem? Was I always the problem?”
“Her depths and shallows, her quicksilver changes. Of course they were not allowed to remain just that, depths, shallows, quicksilver changes…”

Unfortunately, after the first couple examples, the only rhetorical effect it had on me was to make me groan in frustration. By the end of the book I was almost ready to throw things across the room. I came away thinking she needs to have a little more faith in her readers to follow along, draw the proper conclusions and link the related thoughts. 

As it is, I felt like I was being spoonfed each line, like I was being talked down to, and like she was putting on a writing clinic I really wasn’t interested in. Didion’s got some interesting things to say- I just wish she would say them and move on.

Anyway, that’s it. Admittedly short thoughts, but then it’s a pretty short book. I would definitely check out her other work, but I wasn’t exactly jazzed about this book. Anyone else read it?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Vast Hell

Welcome again to the Short Story Club and the premiere (on of Guillermo Martinez's story "Vast Hell." (full text of the story can be found here)

I first happened upon this story in The New Yorker a few years back, and I remember liking it.  Upon re-reading it now, I realize it is a surprisingly simple story, by which I mean that the story maintains good inertia until the finish, without deviations or tangents or overly-cooked rhetoric.  It's just simple.

Martinez is good at lacing into the story "significant moments" that give the story its inertia.  Moments such as "suddenly, it had all become true" on the penultimate page, or "then the inspector shouted that he'd hit something" on the last page.  Simply put, there is no drag to the story.  It moves, and moves quickly.

What I love most about the story, though, is the ending (which in my opinion is often the hardest component of a story to execute well).  In this case, "The French Woman returned a few days later: her father had completely recovered.  We never mentioned the boy again.  The tent was stolen as soon as the holiday season started."  The whole story is one huge crescendo (an erotic affair!), and then more crescendo (disappearance of the lovers!), and then even more crescendo (they're dead! buried on the beach!) and then CRESCENDO (there are dead and mutilated bodies all over the beach!), and then that  last line, which is the equivalent, of a big "Never Mind."

It's clever.

What are your thoughts?  Two thumbs up?  One thumb up and one down?

(Postscript:  The one component of the story I didn't quite grasp was why the inspector shot the dog at the end.  It seemed out of place.  Granted, there had been a lot of violence and death, but shooting the dog seemed too easy . . . didn't it?  What was the purpose?)

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Short Story Club . . . Vast Hell

Welcome all to this month's edition of ShelfActualization's Short Story Club.  This month's story is "Vast Hell" by an Argentine named Guillermo Martinez.  The story was published in The New Yorker in April 2009.  But, besides the fact that Guillermo holds a PhD in "Mathematical Logic" from the University of Buenos Aires, we don't know much about him.

Here is the link to the story.

We'll review and discuss tomorrow, so please join us!

Monday, May 28, 2012

From the Pen of Jack Kerouac

Well, the first reviews of “On the Road” the movie have arrived from the Cannes Film Festival and word on the street is that it’s… just okay. But be heartened, fellow readers, we’ll always have the book, right? In that spirit, here are some of my “great line” highlights from that read. All emphasis is mine:

My first impression of Dean was of a young Gene Autry—trim, thin-hipped, blue-eyed, with a real Oklahoma accent—a sideburned hero of the snowy West.
A western kinsman of the sun, Dean.
Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.
Where was his father?-old bum Dean Moriarty the Tinsmith, riding freights, working as a scullion in railroad cookshacks, stumbling, down-crashing in wino alley nights, expiring on coal piles, dropping his yellowed teeth one by one in the gutters of the West.
We wandered around, carrying our bundles of rags in the narrow romantic streets. Everybody looked like a broken-down movie extra, a withered starlet; disenchanted stunt-men, midget auto-racers, a poignant California characters with their end-of-the-continent sadness, handsome, decadent, Casanova-ish men, puffy-eyed motel blondes, hustlers, pimps, whores, masseurs, bellhops-a lemon lot, and how’s a man going to make a living with a gang like that?
But then they danced down the streets like dingle-dodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after the people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
Of course, half the fun of the novel is found in the short vignettes that are delivered in just a paragraph or two- the amusing cutaways from the main story. Here’s one that takes place on the flat bed of a truck doing seventy miles an hour that really tickled my inner twelve-year old:

…Montana Sliim said, “Ah, pisscall,” but the Minnesotans didn’t stop and went right on through. “Damn, I gotta go,” said Slim.
“Go over the side,” said somebody. 
“Well, I will,” he said, and slowly, as we all watched, he inched to the back of the platform on his haunch, holding on as best he could, till his legs dangled over. Somebody knocked on the window of the cab to bring this to the attention of the brothers. Their great smiles broke as they turned. And just as Slim was ready to proceed, precarious as it was already, they began zigzagging the truck at seventy miles an hour. He fell back a moment; we saw a whale’s spout in the air; he struggled back to a sitting position. They swung the truck. Wham, over he went on his side, watering all over himself. In the roar we could hear him faintly cursing, like the whine of a man far across the hills. “Damn… damn…” He never knew we were doing this deliberately; he just struggled, as grim as Job. When he was finished, as such, he was wringing wet, and now he had to edge and shimmy his way back, and with a most woebegone look, and everybody laughing, except the sad blond boy, and the Minnesotans roaring in the cab. I handed him the bottle to make up for it.
“What the hail,” he said, “ was they doing that on purpose?”
“They sure were.”
“Well, damn me, I didn’t know that. I know I tried it back in Nebraska and didn’t have half so much trouble.”

Sunday, May 27, 2012

See Buenos Aires! Read a Novel!

If you've got the heart of a world traveler, but the meager budget of a channel surfer, we're here to help. How does South America Sound? Let's look at a few cheap tickets to Buenos Aires, shall we?

For a taste of early post-colonial Buenos Aires, try Amalia,  by José Marmol, the precursor to an entire genre of Latin American Dictator Novels:

"The night was peaceful, illuminated by faint starlight, and a cool breeze from the south was a harbinger of the approaching winter cold.
 "In the dim starlight the Plata could be glimpsed, as wild and deserted as the pampas, and the sound of its waves, breaking softly and gently on the flat shoreline, seemed more like the natural breathing of that giant America whose back was weighted down by thirty French warships at the time the events that we are recounting were taking place.
 "Those who have ever dreamed of taking a stroll on a dark night along the shores of the Rio de la Plata, in the district known as “El Bajo” in Buenos Aires, will be familiar with how sad, how melancholy, and at the same time how imposing these surroundings are. A person’s gaze is lost in the vast space that the river occupies, and one can just barely make out in the distance the dim light of one boat or another in the roadstead. The city, one-half or three-quarters of a mile from the shore, looms up, shapeless, dark, immense. No human sound can be heard, and only the wild, monotonous sound of the waves lends a gloomy touch of life to that focal point of loneliness and sadness."

For a detective’s take on Argentina’s Dirty War, and a search for one of the Disappeared, pick up The Buenos Aires Quintet,  by Manuel Vasquez Montalban:

"For the first time he can get some impression of Buenos Aires, which seems too big for its own possibilities, as if it had grown too quickly or there hadn’t been enough money to preserve its grandeur.
"‘It all looks so promising but somehow rundown.’
 "‘Could be. Every neighborhood is different. Borges said that when you cross Rivadavia Avenue you cross the frontier into another world. Rivadavia runs from one end of Buenos Aires to the other and splits it in two.’
 "…Alma got the driver to go through the Palermo neighborhood- it doesn’t really exist, she said, Borges invented it, and the park in Palermo shows how the pre-Columbian idea of the noble savage has been reincarnated here in Buenos Aires as the ignoble one. ‘As soon as the sun comes up, they all strip off and head for the park to get a tan.’
 "It’s true. On the grass, under the trees of Argentina that to Carvalho seem as unbelievably large as the rivers of America, men and women are soaking up the sun, busily pretending they’re as free as birds in nature."

And just as no trip to B.A. would be complete without a day-trip out to the Pampas, so too will your literary journey be incomplete without the quintessential gaucho novel, Don Segundo Sombra,  by Ricardo Guiraldes:

"The morning never said a word. The cattle there in the lush fields had not yet come to life; only a few little birds dribbled their faint song like the drip of a faucet. A gray sky, wrinkled like the sands on that ill-omened coast, told of an approaching storm. And we could feel the storm in the limpness of straps, reins, and quirt, all drooping like a turkey’s wattles.
 "Just the same, we had rested well that night and it was good to be moving in the spacious air that tenderly enveloped our bodies.
 "On we went, following a trail or cutting across country behind our string of ponies, their ears erect to take in every bit of news along the road. After four days we came to a ranch we did not know- a new one. Young trees rose only a few yards from the ground; the brightly painted houses proudly displayed their imposing bay windows and their paths and flower beds as well tended as Sunday clothes." 

Saturday, May 26, 2012

From the Pen of Karen Russell

I was a little rough on Swamplandia!  the other day, but you shouldn’t think Karen Russell is devoid of talent as a writer. Below are some of the better lines from my reading of that book. All emphasis is mine- they’re just the phrases that  slapped me upside the head:

"The buzzards from Ohio had migrated here, too. Turning circles, as docile as party ponies around a mainland carousel. Then they fell, one by one, like little black razors, into the paurotis palms."

 "Carl pressed his lips to near invisibility. Possibly Carl Jenks had at one time wanted to be a kind man, a decent and charitable man; and then puberty had come along and slapped this almost translucent blond mustache across his face."

 "The Chief and I cut twenty minutes from the show, but you could feel the tourists’ pity first and then their distraction, their attention wandering the skies of the open stadium like kites."

 "One Monday in early May I sailed into the kitchen and snatched an envelope out of the Chief’s blunt fingers- he held onto it for an extra beat out of a wrestler’s instinct, his square nails raking scum across the envelope. He chewed his breakfast cigarette and regarded me with deadened amusement."

 "Nobody had told Grandpa Sawtooth that our mother was dead. I could feel the secret rolling between the four of us like an egg in a towel."

 "Vijay didn’t know how to fix the vacuum either. He knelt and touched the vacuum cleaner’s bag sorrowfully, as if it were the belly of a crippled horse…"

 "A weak film of light rinsed the stairwell and I could see our shadows bending upward on the far wall like candle flames."

 "The insects had been a chronic irritation on the CCC barge, but out here on the marshy open prairie they felt pestilential, their sawing sound filling the air like a cruel ventriloquy of the men’s own thirst."

Friday, May 25, 2012

First Line Friday

This week's first line is from . . . a short story.  What? That's right, not a novel, but a short story.  It's an impressive short story, in my view, and the first line is well done too.

"Robert Frost made his visit in November of 1960, just a week after the general election."

In fact, I'd go as far as to say that the first TWO WORDS are powerful in this context.  You open up the story, and you immediately read "Robert Frost," which is intriguing.  A story about Robert Frost?  Or poetry?  Seeing as Robert Frost is a real poet, is the story fictional?  Etc.  The first two words illicit many questions.

The story is "Class Picture" by Tobias Wolff, which was first published in The New Yorker in 2003.  I'd recommend it.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Roberto Bolano's "Summary Dialogue"

One of the components of Roberto Bolano's powerhouse novel 2666 that is most striking to me is its strict absence of dialogue, by which I mean that Bolano prefers to summarize the dialogue, rather than allowing the characters to directly state their words.  For example:

"Espinoza called Pelletier and asked whether it wouldn't be a good idea to get in touch with Norton.  Unsure, they decided to ask Morini.  Morini abstained from comment."

"She said yes, she had met Archimboldi many years ago, but she didn't remember his face anymore, or what he was like, or any story about him that would be worth telling.  She couldn't remember the last time he was at the publishing house.  She advised them to speak to Mrs. Bubis, and then, without a word, she busied herself editing a galley."

"Norton said there was nothing strange about Espinoza's lateness.  Planes got delayed, she said.  Then she  said, I never turn on the television, surprised that Pelletier didn't already know that.  Of course Pelletier did know it.  But he hadn't had the spirit to say: let's watch the news."

Now, after pouring back through the book, I've realized that Bolano does, on occasion, implement the use of quotation marks and standard dialogue.  But, it appears to be somewhat rare, at least in Book One.

Which begs the question: is this summary of dialogue effective?  Do we like it?  Or do we prefer to actually hammer through the quotation marks of word for word dialogue as spoken by the characters?  I am prone to argue that the "Summary of Dialogue" increases the flow, the current, the fluidity of the writing.

Does anyone disagree?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Writer's Voice: James Joyce

If you enjoy the sing-song cadence of a lilting Irish Brogue, then you’ll enjoy this recording of James Joyce reading from Finnegans Wake.  (But if you’re anything like me you’ll probably end up scratching your head, because the man might as well be reading Lorem ipsum placeholder text, for all the sense it makes.)

This is one book I’m pretty sure I’ll never work my way up to.    Ever.   (But I’ll place the text below in case you want to try.)

Well, you know or don’t you kennet or haven’t I told you every telling has a taling and that’s the he and the she of it. Look, look, the dusk is growing! My branches lofty are taking root. And my cold cher’s gone ashley. Fieluhr? Filou! What age is at? It saon is late. ‘Tis endless now senne eye or erewone last saw Waterhouse’s clogh. They took it asunder, I hurd thum sigh. When will they reassemble it? O, my back, my back, my bach! I’d want to go to Aches-les-Pains. Pingpong! There’s the Belle for Sexaloitez! And Concepta de Send-us-pray! Pang! Wring out the clothes! Wring in the dew! Godavari, vert the showers! And grant thaya grace! Aman. Will we spread them here now? Ay, we will. Flip! Spread on your bank and I’ll spread mine on mine. Flep! It’s what I’m doing. Spread! It’s churning chill. Der went is rising. I’ll lay a few stones on the hostel sheets. A man and his bride embraced between them. Else I’d have sprinkled and folded them only. And I’ll tie my butcher’s apron here. It’s suety yet. The strollers will pass it by. Six shifts, ten kerchiefs, nine to hold to the fire and this for the code, the convent napkins, twelve, one baby’s shawl. Good mother Jossiph knows, she said. Whose head? Mutter snores? Deataceas! Wharnow are alle her childer, say? In kingdome gone or power to come or gloria be to them farther? Allalivial, allalluvial! Some here, more no more, more again lost alla stranger. I’ve heard tell that same brooch of the Shannons was married into a family in Spain. And all the Dunders de Dunnes in Markland’s Vineland beyond Brendan’s herring pool takes number nine in yangsee’s hats. And one of Biddy’s beads went bobbing till she rounded up lost histereve with a marigold and a cobbler’s candle in a side strain of a main drain of a manzinahurries off Bachelor’s Walk. But all that’s left to the last of the Meaghers in the loup of the years prefixed and between is one kneebuckle and two hooks in the front. Do you tell me. that now? I do in troth. Orara por Orbe and poor Las Animas! Ussa, Ulla, we’re umbas all! Mezha, didn’t you hear it a deluge of times, ufer and ufer, respund to spond? You deed, you deed! I need, I need! It’s that irrawaddyng I’ve stoke in my aars. It all but husheth the lethest zswound. Oronoko! What’s your trouble? Is that the great Finnleader himself in his joakimono on his statue riding the high horse there forehengist? Father of Otters, it is himself! Yonne there! Isset that? On Fallareen Common? You’re thinking of Astley’s Amphitheayter where the bobby restrained you making sugarstuck pouts to the ghostwhite horse of the Peppers. Throw the cobwebs from your eyes, woman, and spread your washing proper! It’s well I know your sort of slop. Flap! Ireland sober is Ireland stiff Lord help you, Maria, full of grease, the load is with me! Your prayers. I sonht zo! Madammangut! Were you lifting your elbow, tell us, glazy cheeks, in Conway’s Carrigacurra canteen? Was I what, hobbledyhips? Flop! Your rere gait’s creakorheuman bitts your butts disagrees. Amn’t I up since the damp dawn, marthared mary allacook, with Corri- gan’s pulse and varicoarse veins, my pramaxle smashed, Alice Jane in dec and my oneeyed mongrel twice run over, soaking and bleaching boiler rags, and sweating cold, a widow like me, for to deck my tennis champion son, the laundryman with the lavandier flannels? You won your limpopo limp fron the husky hussars when Collars and Cuffs was heir to the town and your slur gave the stink to Carlow. Holy Scamander, I sar it again! Near the golden falls. Icis on us! Seints of light! Zezere! Subdue your noise, you hamble creature! What is it but a blackburry growth or the dwyergray ass them four old codgers owns. Are you meanam Tarpey and Lyons and Gregory? I meyne now, thank all, the four of them, and the roar of them, that draves that stray in the mist and old Johnny MacDougal along with them. Is that the Poolbeg flasher beyant, pharphar, or a fireboat coasting nyar the Kishtna or a glow I behold within a hedge or my Garry come back from the Indes? Wait till the honeying of the lune, love! Die eve, little eve, die! We see that wonder in your eye. We’ll meet again, we’ll part once more. The spot I’ll seek if the hour you’ll find. My chart shines high where the blue milk’s upset. Forgivemequick, I’m going! Bubye! And you, pluck your watch, forgetmenot. Your evenlode. So save to jurna’s end! My sights are swimming thicker on me by the shadows to this place. I sow home slowly now by own way, moyvalley way. Towy I too, rathmine.Ah, but she was the queer old skeowsha anyhow, Anna Livia, trinkettoes! And sure he was the square old buntz too, Dear Dirty Dumpling, foostherfather of fingalls and dotthergills. Gammer and gaffer we’re all their gangsters. Hadn’t he seen dams to wive him? And every dam had her seven crutches. And every crutch had its seven hues. And each hue had a differing cry. Sudds for me and supper for you and the doctor’s bill for Joe John. Befor! Bifur! He married his markets, cheap by foul, I knkow, like and Etrurian Catholic Heathen, in their pinky limony creamy birnies and their turkiss indienne mauves. But at milidmass who was the spouse? Then all that was was fair. Tys Elvenlan! Teems of times and happy returns. The seim anew. Ordovico or viricordo. Anna was, Livia is, Plurabelle’s to be. Northmen’s thing made southfolk’s place but howmulty plurators made eachone in person? Latin me that, my trinity scholard, out of eure sanscreed into oure eryan! Hircus Civis Eblanensis! He had buck goat paps on him, soft ones for orphans. Ho, Lord! Twins of his bosom. Lord save us! And ho! Hey? What all men. Hot? His tittering daughters of. Whawk?Can’t hear the waters of. The chittering waters of. Flittering bats, fieldmice bawk talk. Ho! Are you not gone ahome? What Thom Malone? Can’t hear with bawk of bats, all thim liffeying waters of. Ho, talk save us! My foos won’t moos. I feel as old as yonder elm. A tale of Shaun or Shem? All Livia’s daughter-sons. Dark hawks hear us. Night! Night! My ho head halls. I feel as heavy as yonder stone. Tell me the John or Shaun? Who were Shem and Shaun the living sons or daughters of? Night now! Tell me, tell me, elm! Night night! Telmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Review: Swamplandia! by Karen Russel

If you haven’t heard by now, Karen Russel’s Swamplandia!  was one of three finalists for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, in a year when no prize was ultimately awarded (for the first time in 35 years, no less.) It was the outcry of dissenting voices, more than anything else, that prompted me to pick up Swamplandia!  and see what all the hullaballoo was about.

Let me start off by saying that this is a book I generally liked. Yet I’m still processing how I feel about it.

It starts off with an interesting premise. A family of alligator wrestlers falls on hard times when their star attraction dies and a Hell-themed amusement park siphons off their remaining visitors. The story then traces how each member of the crumbling Bigtree family tries to save Swamplandia!, their beloved homestead and swamp tourist attraction.

Russel transports the reader to an off-kilter reality where the unbelievable is presented as mundane. As a fan of Wes Anderson’s films, I actually had no problem with this. And just when the various plotlines roll right up to the border of the fantastical and magical, and you thought she was ready to jump the shark, Russel dumps a cooler of ice-cold Gatorade on your head and brings you back to reality. I’ll be honest, the story loosened its hold on me a little bit in the middle, and I was about to lament how low the “Pulitzer bar” had fallen, but she managed to tie the loose ends together and turn the book into a pretty memorable statement about family relationships.

Sounds decent, right? Then why am I still hesitant to sing its praises from the rooftops? It’s pretty simple: Editing. More specifically, the lack thereof.

There were more questionable question marks in this book than I could even count. Declarative statements with question mark endings. It was a little weird, to be honest, and I couldn’t tell if she was doing it on purpose- adding some sort of voice inflection in the best way she knew how- or if they were just missed by the three different editors who are credited in the acknowledgements.

Since the book was published by Alfred A. Knopf, I obviously assumed it was intentional. Publishing imprints don’t really get any more prestigious than Knopf. But then I noticed other typos, as well. Things ‘stared’ instead of ‘started,’ they ‘careered’ instead of ‘careened,’ they even ‘flap-flap-flaped’ instead of ‘flap-flap-flapped.’ There was an omitted word that made one sentence incomprehensible, and a pronoun in another that referred back to exactly zero previously mentioned objects. Then came an entire paragraph that was repeated word for word, a page and a half after it was printed the first time- and this was clearly not done for effect. It was just another oversight.

I wish that were all, though. In addition to some pretty clunky metaphors (a sky that looked like it was having its stitches removed after an operation?!), There were a whole host of pretty persistent continuity errors: Were the skies cloudy or were they clear? Was the sawgrass nine-feet tall, or could the child narrator see how it stretched for miles and miles all round (both wouldn’t be possible, given her height) A portion of the book takes place in the dead of night, yet there were descriptions of vividly-colored blue and red fish, cider-colored water and the licorice-like striations of a scarlet kingsnake. (I’ve seen some bright moons, but none that would allow for that kind of visual detail.)

Did any of this ruin the book for me? Ehhh, not exactly. The excellent passages outnumbered the awkward ones by a good bit. But I’m still bothered enough by all the bad to spend half my review enumerating my hang-ups. And even though I enjoyed watching this world come to life, I’m back to asking myself, “Really? This is what a Pulitzer finalist looks like?”

I don’t know. Read it for yourself, but get the paperback version- with any luck they’ve cleaned up all my nit-picks from the hard-cover edition.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Links Post

Today we pause to mark our 200th post. But it’s one thing to mark a milestone, and another to categorize and codify all 200 posts with an archivist’s careful touch. I don’t know- maybe it’s the history major in me, but I figured some would appreciate this consolidated view. Long may you feast on these literary links:

Literary Death Matches:

See the World:

Author Look-Alikes:


The Writer’s Voice:

Films and Telly:


Poets Corner:


Holiday fiction:

Monthly wrap-ups:

Short Story Club:

Haiku-ption Contests:


From the Pen of:

Writing/So you Wanna Be a Writer:


The cool and the interesting:

Reading & Recommendations:

First Line Fridays: