Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Tour de France kicks off today

“I have started many stories about bicycle racing but have never written one that is as good as the races are both on the indoor and outdoor tracks and on the roads.  
“…I must write the strange world of the six-day races and the marvels of the road-racing in the mountains. French is the only language it has ever been written in properly and the terms are all French and that is what makes it hard to write.”

-Ernest Hemingway, in A Moveable Feast

(And yes, in the 20s there was a slightly higher incidence of smoking on the Tour than you’ll probably find today. But that’s awesome in its own way.)

Friday, June 29, 2012

First Line Friday

MacEvoy has been putting a bug in my ear as of late about The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.  I haven't read it, but I did take a look at the first page earlier today.  As such, I figured we might as well examine its first line:

"To start with, look at all the books."

Hmmmmm.  I don't love it, to be honest.  It's too flippant.  Too brief.  Too colloquial for my taste.  MacEvoy may disagree . . .

(Side Note:  I am considering discontinuing First Line Friday to pursue other opportunities, such as "Title Tuesdays" or "Metaphor Mondays." What say all of you?  Are we tired of First Line Fridays?)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Review: Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson

So I’m working my way through the ill-fated 2012 Pulitzer finalists- you know, the ones that became entangled in controversy when no prize was awarded earlier this year? I took a look at Karen Russel’s Swamplandia!  here. And today I dig into Denis Johnson’s much-acclaimed novella, Train Dreams,  the story of a day-laborer in the American West named Robert Grainier.

I should say up front that I’m not disparaging the writing, which was more than capable. After all, Johnson’s the National Book Award Winning author of Tree of Smoke, which is high on my future reads wishlist.  Rather, I’ve got a bone to pick with the lack of “evocative and poignant fiction” that I was promised by reviewers and blurb writers. Is this book truly “an epic in miniature” as they claim?

Well, it is miniature. And it does cover the span of a lifetime. But in creating such a spare and economical work, it seems Johnson has cut out all the emotional impact of the story along with any semblance of a rewarding plot structure.

There was just... not much there. This book felt less like a well-crafted piece of fiction than the kind of cursory memoir that people goad their aging parents into penning for posterity. It was a list of memorable events, sure, but there was no discernible theme stringing them together. It didn’t really say  or mean  anything to me.

I guess there’s something to be gleaned about the crazy cast of characters who won the American West, and the sometimes inexplicable reasons they held their ground in the face of untold hardships. But I just wasn’t carried away like the advance press said I would be. It was okay. But I don’t think okay is good enough these days. Not for a major prize, anyway.

I didn’t even really care when the main character’s wife and baby daughter were consumed in a forest fire, because I didn’t feel like I knew them at all. I didn’t even know anything about him  except that he worked as a logger and had once wanted to throw a spastic Chinese railroad laborer off a bridge.

I don’t know. The more 2012 Pulitzer finalists I get to know, the more I think the jury got it right by not awarding a prize. That should be a pretty high bar to clear. Maybe the Pale King  still has a case that it was jobbed, but Swamplandia!  and Train Dreams  haven’t given me too much hope.

Anybody disagree?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Poet's Corner: "At The Cancer Clinic" by Ted Kooser

Alright. Today’s poem-for-the-common-man is short and sweet. There’s nothing overtly profound about it, but it still manages to tear your heart out. See for yourself:

At the Cancer Clinic
By Ted Kooser

She is being helped toward the open door
that leads to the examining rooms
by two young women I take to be her sisters.
Each bends to the weight of an arm
and steps with the straight, tough bearing
of courage. At what must seem to be
a great distance, a nurse holds the door,
smiling and calling encouragement.
How patient she is in the crisp white sails
of her clothes. The sick woman
peers from under her funny knit cap
to watch each foot swing scuffing forward
and take its turn under her weight.
There is no restlessness or impatience
or anger anywhere in sight. Grace
fills the clean mold of this moment
and all the shuffling magazines grow still.


Am I right? The imagery is simple, and yes, it’s got some nice lines. But what makes this poem truly great, in my view, are the seven words that make up that last line:   “and all the shuffling magazines grow still.”

Criminy, that’s good! One minute we’re reading some poem where almost nothing happens, and in an instant we’re made part of a crowded hospital waiting room, frozen in admiration of this woman’s courage, or reverently marking her impending death, or silently cheering her fight for life. Or Maybe all of the above. 

Sometimes all it takes to give us a little perspective is to watch the right person shuffle weakly down the hall.

Hats off to Mr. Koozer. Anybody else been bowled over by a poem lately?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Short Story Club: "An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge"

Come on in and have a seat. We’re just getting started.

What did everyone think of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge?”

It’s a little different than the other stories we’ve covered, but I think it’s got a great opening- one that has you asking yourself questions immediately. After that it seems Bierce quickly overplays his hand, getting bogged down in a lot of overly detailed stage direction: who was standing where, how they were holding their guns, what their ranks were, etc., etc, etc. Most modern readers will find themselves skipping ahead. (You're pathetic. Go hang your heads in shame.)

But I’m actually going to defend Bierce here. At first I chalked the heavy description up to the time period and the nineteenth century tendency to belabor every detail. Then I started to think that maybe he was just capturing the hyper-awareness of a man who was staring at his imminent death- sponging up every last impression that this world could give him. Both of those theories might be true, I suppose. But I think he’s doing something else here.

He feeds us all those details so that we’re drawn into the story once all of those pointless bystanders start to play a significant role, as they react to his noose snapping and rush to shoot him in the water instead. The reader revisits those early details and tries to figure out whether our hanged man has a real chance at escape. I thought it was a great way to build up the tension.

I also liked the flashback explaining how we got to the hanging. Bierce lets us chew on what’s happening, while he cuts away for some interesting backdrop. Again, he’s letting the tension simmer and percolate.

And then we really get some nice things happening. The noose breaks, our man is in the water, and what was a kind of sleepy, plodding story is now a life and death struggle. I love the description we get along the way:
“He was now in full possession of his physical senses. They were, indeed, preternaturally keen and alert. Something in the awful disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined them that they made record of things never before perceived. He felt the ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they struck. He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf--saw the very insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant-bodied flies, the grey spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig. He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass. The humming of the gnats that danced above the eddies of the stream, the beating of the dragon flies' wings, the strokes of the water-spiders' legs, like oars which had lifted their boat--all these made audible music. A fish slid along beneath his eyes and he heard the rush of its body parting the water.”
And then, of course, the ending! Bierce has yanked our chain! And yet we’re not angry, because hey, maybe that really is  what occurs in that instant before your neck snaps. Sounds pretty plausible to me.

Here's the Oscar-winning short, for those of you who were too damn lazy to read it.

Anyone else like it? Hate it? Tell us why in the comments.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Short Story Club Selection for June

Yes, friends. It’s that time once again.  

This month we’re going to take a trip in the WABAC Machine and examine a story that was first published in 1890:  Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge.” Why did we choose this story? For one, we’ve never talked about brother Bierce on this site. And for another, this particular story contains one of the all-time great, swift-kick-to-the-crotch  endings.

Here’s how it begins:
“A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man's hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees.”
Click here to read the full story, and then get yourself back here tomorrow for the discussion. Tucker’s making his world famous bruschetta, you won’t want to miss it.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Writer's Voice: F. Scott Fitzgerald

We often become so familiar with the distinctive literary voice of an author, that it can be somewhat jarring to hear their actual speaking voice. Unless, of course, that author happens to be F. Scott Fitzgerald. Then you have no choice but to be lulled into a peaceful slumber by his dulcet, velvet voice.

Sweet dreams, readers.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Hemingway and Gellhorn

Anyone see “Hemingway and Gellhorn” yet? I don’t subscribe to HBO, but they must have had a free preview a couple weekends ago because I was able to snag it on the ol’ DVR. Now that I’ve had a chance to watch it, I thought I’d weigh in with my thoughts.

As the title suggests, the film is a biopic on Hemingway and his third wife, war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. Clive Owen plays the role of Hem, while Nicole Kidman plays Gellhorn. Both are about 10-15 years older than the real Hemingway and Gellhorn were when the actual events took place. But Kidman, I think, still manages to pull of a youthful look. Owen… not so much. More on that later. The supporting cast include Robert Duvall, David Strathairn, Parker Posey and a surprisingly obese Jeffrey Jones (picture Edward R. Rooney with about 80 lbs too many.)

The movie takes us to Key West, Cuba, Ketchum and even China, but focuses for the most part on what I think is the most captivating period of Hemingway’s life: his involvement in the Spanish Civil War and his documentation of it in For Whom the Bell Tolls,  and in the short propoganda film, “The Spanish Earth.”  (If you haven’t read FWtBT,  repent forthwith, and if you haven’t watched the film he helped write and narrate, go here.)

But make no mistake, this is Gellhorn’s story. Hemingway is continually portrayed as an overbearing, sexist lout- all of which he probably was. But you won’t find any of Gellhorn’s well-documented infidelities in the film. Her story feels a little too white-washed. When an assignment from Collier’s takes her to China, no mention is made of Hemingway’s own credentials with PM magazine, or his post as an intelligence officer for the US Treasury Department. The viewer just assumes he’s tagging along on her assignment and resenting her for it. In another scene Hemingway is shown practically raping her backstage in order to “feel like a man” and overcome a bout of stage fright before speaking. Gellhorn is then called out on stage for impromptu remarks which outshine Hemingway’s in every way.

At other points he is shown flying off the handle for no apparent reason and challenging a Communist General to a game of Russian Roulette. He stabs people in the back, rides roughshod over everyone in his path. And I don’t know how they did it, but they made Clive Owen appear tired, pasty, sniveling and frumpy. Hemingway is no doubt far from perfect, but the continual pile-on just didn’t ring true.

Don’t get me wrong, I came out of this movie with a desire to know so much more about Gellhorn and her life, but I felt that they gratuitously “over-caricatured”  Hemingway to provide a compelling foil for her. Too many pot shots at an easy target.

Anybody else see it? Anyone disagree?

Friday, June 22, 2012

First Line Friday

I've been a little bit of a downer recently with the first lines I've highlighted.  I haven't love them all.  And I am going to continue the trend today.

"I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old."

Hmmmmm, pretty shady punctuation, isn't it?  For my taste, it's far too meandering, too random, too loosy goosy.  The novel is Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.  And, having said all of this, I think I can predict what the rebuttal will consist of.
So go ahead, disagree with me, if you will.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Haiku-ption Contest #8

My haiku is below. Give us yours in the comments.

Jackie Onassis:
Graceful former first lady,
Planking pioneer

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Symbolism in Literature: Not so fast, my friend...

INTERVIEWER:   Would you admit to there being symbolism in your novels?

HEMINGWAY:   I suppose there are symbols since critics keep finding them. If you do not mind I dislike talking about them and being questioned about them. It is hard enough to write books and stories without being asked to explain them as well. Also it deprives the explainers of work. If five or six or more good explainers can keep going why should I interfere with them? Read anything I write for the pleasure of reading it. Whatever else you find will be the measure of what you brought to the reading.

INTERVIEWER:   Continuing with just one question on this line: One of the advisory staff editors wonders about a parallel he feels he’s found in The Sun Also Rises  between the dramatis personae of the bull ring and the characters of the novel itself. He points out that the first sentence of the book tells us Robert Cohn is a boxer; later, during the desencajonada,  the bull is described as using his horns like a boxer, hooking and jabbing. And just as the bull is attracted and pacified by the presence of a steer, Robert Cohn defers to Jake who is emasculated precisely as is a steer. He sees Mike as the picador, baiting Cohn repeatedly. The editor’s thesis goes on, but he wondered if it was your conscious intention to inform the novel with the tragic structure of the bullfight ritual.

HEMINGWAY:   It sounds as though the advisory staff editor was a little bit screwy. Who ever said Jake was “emasculated precisely as is a steer”? Actually he had been wounded in quite a different way and his testicles were intact and not damaged. Thus he was capable of all normal feelings as a man  but incapable of consummating them. The important distinction is that his wound was physical and not psychological and that he was not emasculated.

-From the Paris Review Interview published in 1958

Monday, June 18, 2012

More Author Look-Alikes

Ay-oh, Oh-ay! Look at those deep-set eyes and pouty lips. The only difference between Virginia Woolf and Judith Light is a hairdryer and a little makeup. (And probably a bottle of hydrogen peroxide.)

Here's Tobias Wolff with unquestioned mustache domination, but Richard Dreyfuss has the edge on scalp coverage and protruding chest hair. Otherwise not a shabby match.

Facial hair, heavy eyelids, and prominent eyebrows... Alfred Molina matches Marcel Proust feature for feature.

Two words came into my head when I saw this picture of D.H. Lawrence: Daniel Faraday. A concerned and bearded Jeremy Davies is right about spot on.

Last but not least, T.C. Boyle and Terrence Stamp. Kneel before Zod!!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Be a Better Dad, Read a Novel...

Fathers Day’s got me thinking. There just aren’t many great fathers in the world of literature. Scan your bookshelves and tell me how many decent, loving fathers you come across. You’ll find that the dearth of dads is pretty striking. It seems we get better stories when our fathers are dead, cruel, or out of the picture altogether. Even when they’re there, they tend to be hapless milquetoasts (I’m looking at you, Tom Joad Sr.) There’s a lot more tension that way. And it lets the main character figure things out on their own.

But of those select few who can be held up as examples, I think you’d have to put To Kill A Mockingbird’s  Atticus Finch right at the top of the list. A quick perusal of that book can give some great pointers to those of us trying to figure out fatherhood. Channel Mr. Finch, and you’re well on your way.

For example, teach your kids to read. Teach them to respect their elders. Teach them all about life. But most of all, teach them by example. Don’t be afraid to take a principled stand. Sure, today’s casting directors will put Latinos, Asians, and wheelchair-bound Aborigines in just about every show they watch on tv, but nothing says ‘racism isn’t cool’ like defending a falsely-accused black man when the whole town is forming a lynch mob.

Treat your kids with fairness. Show them what integrity means. At the same time, respect their need to understand the rationale behind all your silly rules. 

Let your kids be kids. Let your girls be tomboys. Give them a long leash and let them explore the world around them.

But know when to give that leash a tug. (Hint, if they’re using a fishing pole to drop provocative messages into your neighbors’ back window, they’ve probably overstepped some important boundaries.)

Be humble. If you’re the deadest shot in Maycomb County you don’t have to go bragging about it. Just be ready to take care of business when mad dogs come to tear your kids to shreds. You never know when the Sheriff’s going to crap his pants under the pressure of a “one shot deal.”

I could go on and on. Is Atticus perfect? Definitely not. But where he has faults we can also learn from his mistakes. 

For instance, when the town lowlife swears revenge on you and your family, don’t just wipe his loogie of your face and say you’re too old to fight. Put the bastard out of commission, because sooner or later he’ll come after your kids, and unless they happen to don protective giant ham costumes made of chicken wire, or unless your reclusive neighbor can put a kitchen knife between his ribs, well, things probably won’t end well.

Oh, and maybe this was okay to do with old ladies during the Depression, but nowadays you probably shouldn’t lend your kids out to the neighborhood morphine addict to help wean him or her off their special sauce.

Anything I missed? Any other great fathers from land of literature? As a dad myself, I’d love to hear more…

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Happy Bloomsday!

On this date in 1904, James Joyce took his wife-to-be, Nora Barnacle, out on a stroll through a Dublin suburb. It was their first date. Years later, Joyce would choose this date as the setting-in-time for his monumental novel Ulysses.

Fifty years after that original outing, admirers of Joyce inaugurated the very first “Bloomsday” celebration, with a pilgrimage along the same route that Leopold Bloom traced in the novel. 

For those of us who can’t be in Dublin to take part in the festivities, we’re sharing the short film below. Dublin filmmaker Noel Duffy takes you on a 23-minute tour of Bloom’s famous route. It borders on boring, and I cannot explain the appearance of “Video Killed the Radio Star” in the random and intermittent soundtrack, but then, who really needs an explanation to rock out to the Buggles? That’s right- not me, and not you.


Friday, June 15, 2012

First Line Friday

Greetings all!

Today, I'd like to look at the mediocre first line of a tremendous novel. Your rebuttal is welcome, as always. Here is the first line:

"There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills."
Fair enough . . . perhaps the road is lovely. But this first line just doesn't cut it for me. It offers nothing that is unique, intriguing, or edgy. Granted, it's simple, and there is beauty in simplicity, but . . .

The novel, of course, is Alan Paton's Cry, The Beloved CountryNow, go ahead.  Rebuttal?

*** MacEvoy weighs in ***

A lot of our email and RSS followers won't read the comments, but looking back through the introduction of my copy of C,TBC  I discovered a couple things that are interesting enough to tack on here. Consider this my rebuttal. 

Paton wrote this book while on an international tour of penal institutions. I'll quote the account of the genesis of this first line:
"He also took a side trip to Norway to visit Trondheim, and to see the locale of a Norwegian novel that interested him, Knut Hamsun's Growth of the Soil 
Traversing the unfamiliar evergreen forests of the mountainous border landscape, Paton grew nostalgic for the hills of Natal... Jensen then brought Paton back to his hotel and promised to return in an hour to take him to dinner. In the course of that hour, moved, as he says, by powerful emotion, Paton wrote the lyric opening chapter beginning: "There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills..." At that juncture he did not know what was to follow. He had sketched no scenario for a novel.
So he was moved by a memory of his homeland, and he poured that emotion into writing. My own opinion is that his emotion can easily be felt by the reader, especially as his first paragraph continues: 
"...These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond the singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa."
But there's another reason I think it's a great opening line. The setting of South Africa, and the love of one's homeland are the major  themes of this novel. Read the passage we quoted in this post, for a taste of that. And here is Paton in his own words:
"So many things have been written about this book that I would not know how to add to them if I did not believe that I know best what kind of book it is. It is a song of love for one's far distant country, it is informed with longing for that land where they shall not hurt nor destroy in all that holy mountain, for that unattainable and ineffable land where there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, for the land cannot be again, of hills and grass and bracken, the land where you were born. It is a story of the beauty and terror of human life, and it cannot be written again because it cannot be felt again. Just how good it is, I do not know and I do not care. All I know is that it changed our lives. It opened the doors of the world to us, and we went through."
I think the simple opening line is the perfect way to launch that kind of book.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Review: Silas Marner, by George Eliot

It’s been a while since we’ve reviewed anything, so let’s talk about Silas Marner,  shall we?

This book was my first experience with George Eliot, but Marner  is certainly not her best known, or most highly acclaimed work. Still, I thought it would be a good way to edge myself closer to Middlemarch  one day. Turns out it was a nice little read.

There’s a great use of dialect and colorful characters, and you can tell that Eliot had a blast recreating the quaint village life that serves as a backdrop for the story. In fact, the one criticism I’ll offer is that she got a little too  carried away- relaying entire scenes that have nothing to do with what’s really going on. At certain points it occurred to me that a more appropriate title might have been “The Villagers of Raveloe… and Silas Marner,”  but hey, who am I to complain? A story about a reclusive weaver? Catalepsy used as a plot device? Sold. Enough said.

Silas, the strange central character, is not at all likeable at first glance. But here’s what Eliot does so well:  right off the bat, she gives us his backstory- a sad tale of betrayal and lost love that explains why he’s become the miserable misanthrope and village bogeyman that we meet in the first few pages of the book. You can’t help but cheer for the guy as things progress.

And progress they do. One reason I love to go back to the classics is that, for any of their other faults, they tend to be very well plotted. Things that occur in the opening chapters will come full-circle and be paid off in the end. In the case of Silas Marner,  these twists and turns alternate between gut-wrenching losses and exhilarating stokes of luck. Ultimately, though, we’re given a happy ending, and Silas is utterly transformed by his character journey.

On top of all that, Eliot presents the reader with themes that are as relevant today as they were in her day. It’s a book about redemption, and community, and religion, and family. And if she wanders off on some tangents of “village color,” well, I think I can forgive that. Check it out.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut: Infantry Battalion Scout

INTERVIEWER:   You were an infantry battalion scout in the war?

VONNEGUT:   Yes, but I took my basic training on the 240-millimeter howitzer.

INTERVIEWER:   A rather large weapon.

VONNEGUT:   The largest mobile fieldpiece in the army at that time. This weapon came in six pieces, each piece dragged wallowingly by a Caterpillar tractor. Whenever we were told to fire it, we had to build it first. We practically had to invent it. We lowered one piece on top of another, using cranes and jacks. The shell itself was about nine and a half inches in diameter and weighed three hundred pounds. We constructed a miniature railway which would allow us to deliver the shell from the ground to the breech, which was about eight feet above grade. The breechblock was like the door on the vault of a savings and loan association in Peru, Indiana, say.

INTERVIEWER:   It must have been a thrill to fire such a weapon.

VONNEGUT:   Not really. We would put the shell in there, and then we would throw in bags of very slow and patient explosives. They were damp dog biscuits, I think. We would close the breech, and then trip a hammer which hit a fulminate of mercury percussion cap, which spit fire at the damp dog biscuits. The main idea, I think, was to generate steam. After a while, we could hear these cooking sounds. It was a lot like cooking a turkey. In utter safety, I think, we could have opened the breechblock from time to time, and basted the shell. Eventually, though, the howitzer always got restless. And finally it would heave back on its recoil mechanism, and it would have to expectorate the shell. The shell would come floating out like the Goodyear blimp. If we had had a stepladder, we could have painted “F*** Hitler” on the shell as it left the gun. Helicopters could have taken after it and shot it down.

INTERVIEWER:   The ultimate terror weapon.

VONNEGUT:   Of the Franco-Prussian War.

-From Vonnegut's hilarious interview with the Paris Review

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

That Dweam Within a Dweam...

It’s been fifty years since my parents were married- fifty years to the day, actually. Tonight they’ll celebrate their golden wedding anniversary. And that’s pretty amazing. Congrats are in order for them, and some grateful reflection is in order for me. With divorce rates what they are these days, I realize how incredibly lucky I am to have been brought up in a pretty stable, two-parent home. Heck, we never even had to move when I was a kid. I suppose if my worst trials were being forced to mow the lawn with a manual mower and sheers, then I had it pretty good.

But the milestone has had me thinking about marriage lately, and the kind of love that can stand the test of time. I’m reminded of this excellent excerpt from James Joyce’s The Dead  (you knew there was a literary angle coming), where a husband looks back on his married life and recounts a few simple “moments of ecstacy” the’ve shared:

“She was walking on before him so lightly and so erect that he longed to run after her noiselessly, catch her by the shoulders and say something foolish and affectionate into her ear. She seemed to him so frail that he longed to defend her against something and then to be alone with her. Moments of their secret life together burst like stars upon his memory. A heliotrope envelope was lying beside his breakfast-cup and he was caressing it with his hand. Birds were twittering in the ivy and the sunny web of the curtain was shimmering along the floor: he could not eat for happiness. They were standing on the crowded platform and he was placing a ticket inside the warm palm of her glove. He was standing with her in the cold, looking in through a grated window at a man making bottles in a roaring furnace. It was very cold. Her face, fragrant in the cold air, was quite close to his; and suddenly she called out to the man at the furnace:
“—Is the fire hot, sir?
“But the man could not hear her with the noise of the furnace. It was just as well. He might have answered rudely.
“A wave of yet more tender joy escaped from his heart and went coursing in warm flood along his arteries. Like the tender fires of stars moments of their life together, that no one knew of or would ever know of, broke upon and illumined his memory. He longed to recall to her those moments, to make her forget the years of their dull existence together and remember only their moments of ecstasy. For the years, he felt, had not quenched his soul or hers. Their children, his writing, her household cares had not quenched all their souls' tender fire.”

When he’s not blabbering incoherently, Joyce can write just as touchingly as the next guy.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Another Month in the Books

Above are some of the authors we highlighted last month, and below are the most popular posts.

And, of course, the peculiar search terms that bring people to this corner of the web:

  • "Nabokov Joyce photo": We believe this is the only one that exists.
  • "Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel man carrying acorns": This Forster post.
  • "Erri De Luca": Short Story Club selection for April.
  • "Is King Solomon’s Mines a racist novel?": Talked about that here.
  • "Gatsby Rolls Royce": Something sadly missing from this game.
  • "Charlie Korsmo": We think he looks like Kafka.
  • "Neal Cassady": Diagnosed as bi-polar, here.
  • "Ernest Hemingway sockless": Ernest Hemingway + windsock
  • "Shadow of the Wind": Could have gone here, or here.
  • "Joseph Conrad": In his own words, here.

Keep coming back. And thanks as always for reading.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

A Poetry Pet Peeve

What             are              poems
                        written       like         this


Can someone please explain it to me?

Friday, June 8, 2012

First Line Friday

Alas, let us examine yet another first line today.  And at the risk of being too Hemingway-centric, I have been turning this first line over and over in my mind lately.  It's typical Hemingway; brief, clean, and concise.  As such, it's also (in my mind) very effective.

"He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees."

This sentence introduces the reader to Robert Jordan who is lying on the ground surveying a bridge (which he plans to blow up) during the Spanish Civil War.

To me, Hemingway is a lot like watching Paul Pierce of the Boston Celtics, by which I mean that Pierce is not especially strong, fast, or explosive.  Rather, he appears to be an everyday shmuck. Yet he is extremely effective on the basketball court, and I have yet to figure out why.

Similarly, Hemingway is not especially verbose, grandiose, intricate, or complicated.  His writing is all rather clean.  Yet he is extremely effective when it comes to conveying a mood or a feeling, and I have yet to figure out why.


Thursday, June 7, 2012

From the Pen of Ray Bradbury

I’m not going to review Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine,  because we’re in negotiations with that book for a very special episode of Literary Death Match (imagine a Mixed Tag-Team Throwdown between classic Coming-of-Age Novels), but I did want to share some of my highlights from the book.

The dialogue is a little hackneyed- with life-changing epiphanies breeding like rabbits at every turn- but Bradbury’s narrative descriptions will make you positively ache  with nostalgia for another, simpler time. (See this post from earlier in the week for one example.) Here are some other passages that made me sit up and drink them in twice. All emphasis is my own:

He unscrewed the top of the jar and tilted the fireflies in a pale shower of sparks down the windless night. They found their wings and flew away.

An aunt had arrived and her name was Rose and you could hear her voice clarion clear above the others, and you could imagine her warm and huge as a hothouse rose, exactly like her name, filling any room she sat in.

The eye sped over a snow field where lay fricassees, salmagundis, gumbos, freshly invented succotashes, chowders, ragouts. The only sound was a primeval bubbling from the kitchen and the clocklike chiming of fork-on-plate announcing the seconds instead of hours.

Was she conscious of her talent? Hardly. If asked about her cooking, Grandma would look down at her hands which some glorious instinct sent on journeys to be gloved in flour, or to plumb disencumbered turkeys, wrist-deep in search for their animal souls. Her grey eyes blinked from spectacles warped by forty years of oven blasts and blinded with strewing of pepper and sage…

And then there’s the haunting image of Colonel Freeleigh dialing a stranger in Mexico City to spend the final minutes of his life listening to the sounds of a far away world:

“Listen,” whispered the old man to himself.
And he heard a thousand people in another sunlight, and the faint, tinkling music of an organ grinder playing “La Marimba” –oh, a lovely, dancing tune. 
With eyes tight, the old man put up his hand as if to click pictures of an old cathedral, and his body was heavier with flesh, younger, and he felt the hot pavement underfoot.
He wanted to say, “You’re still there, aren’t you? All of you people in that city in the time of the early siesta, the shops closing, the little boys crying loteria nacional par ahoy!  to sell lottery tickets. You are all there, the people in the city. I can’t believe I was ever among you. When you are away from a city it becomes a fantasy. Any town, New York, Chicago, with its people, becomes improbable with its distance. Just as I am improbable here, in Illinois, in a small town by a quiet lake. All of us improbable to one another because we are not present to one another. And so it is good to hear the sounds, and know that Mexico City is still there and the people moving and living…”
He sat there with the receiver tightly pressed to his ear.
And at last, the clearest, most improbable sound of all- the sound of a green trolley car going around a corner a trolley burdened with brown and alien and beautiful people, and the sound of other people running and calling out with triumph as they leaped up and swung aboard and vanished around a corner on the shrieking rails and were borne away in the sun-blazed distance to leave only the sound of tortillas frying on the market stoves, or was it merely the ever rising and falling hum and burn of static quivering along two thousand miles of copper wire…
Post script: I actually wrote this post Tuesday night, scheduled it for this morning and, sometime in the intervening hours, Ray Bradbury passed away. His death is obviously a great loss for the literary world. If you've got some free time, there are worse ways to spend it than listening to him tell his own story in this video.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

2666: A nagging question and a satisfying answer

As of this posting, our friend Tucker should be right in the thick of Book 4 of Roberto Bolaño’s gigantic doorstop of a classic, 2666.  Getting to that point in the novel is kind of like reaching mile 20 in a very grueling marathon. It’s hard, it hurts, and you’re wondering why you ever started the race in the first place. (At least that’s how this  marathon-virgin imagines mile 20 of a marathon to be…)

Book 4 is titled “The Part About the Crimes” and comes in at around 350 pages in the hardcover edition. That’s not what makes it unusual, though. What makes it unusual is that Book 4 is essentially a 350 page catalogue of a series of violent murders that take place in Santa Teresa, Bolaño’s fictional stand-in for Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. (Read about the real-life inspiration here.)

The reader basically gets a full forensic report on each of the victims, all of them young women, including where they were found, how they were found, what they were wearing, how they were killed, and on and on and on. After the first few cases are explained in detail, one gets the impression this is just Bolaño being Bolaño. He’s using an abundance of random detail to build a picture that’s almost too real to be fiction- just as he does earlier in 2666,  when he plunges headlong into page after descriptive page detailing the random dreams of his characters- dreams that seem to have no bearing on the story at hand, but which give the story a stamp of lifelike authenticity.

But when you get through a hundred pages of detailed murder descriptions, with no apparent signs of the author’s letting up, you can’t help but think there’s something else going on here. And by the time two hundred pages have rolled by, you’re convinced that he’s gone off the deep end- he’s no longer playing “fun with random details-”  he’s cataloguing the endless stream of murders out of some sordid, neurotic necessity. It’s an obsession almost.

So, why does he do it?

I don’t have any idea. At least I didn’t when I first read it. But while researching an old highschool classmate-turned-poet, I stumbled across a very interesting theory that he puts forward here (see the last paragraph.) Here it is in a nutshell:

  1. There’s reason to believe that Bolaño sowed some wild oats in the northwest Mexico of his 1970s youth.
  2. It’s not inconceivable that he had an illegitimate child or two the exact same age as the victims in 2666  (or the real-life victims in Ciudad Juarez.)
  3. If Bolaño believed he might have had a daughter among the dead, then “The Part About the Crimes” could be his desperate search to find, name, connect with and honor her.

Still not sold? I'll admit it could be a stretch, but consider this: Bolaño dedicated 2666  to his daughters.

Mind blown, right?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The clatter of rotating metal through sweet summer grass

“Feeling the smile and wondering why it was there, he awoke. He lay quietly listening, and the smile was explained.
“For he heard a sound which was far more important than birds or the rustle of new leaves. Once a year he woke this way and lay waiting for the sound which meant that summer had officially begun. And it began on a morning such as this when a boarder, a nephew, a cousin, a son or a grandson came out on the lawn below and moved in consecutively smaller quadrangles north and east and south and west with a clatter of rotating metal through the sweet summer grass. Clover blossoms, the few unharvested dandelion fires, ants, sticks, pebbles, remnants of last year’s July Fourth squibs and punks, but predominantly clear green, a fount leaped up from the chattering mower. A cool soft fount; Grandfather imagined it tickling his legs, spraying his warm face, filling his nostrils with the timeless scent of a new season begun, with the promise that, yes, we’ll all live another twelve months.”

-Ray Bradbury, in Dandelion Wine

My family’s push reel lawn mower didn’t make it into the 21st century, but I’m pretty sure I was still pushing that thing in the ‘90s. (That would explain the embarrassing plenitude of ‘character’ I still hold in reserve, while all my friends have to show for their landscaping efforts are the sad, spent fumes of the very self-propelled, gas-powered engines that stripped them of their manhood.) 

Still, no matter how you do it, nothing says summer like the smell of freshly cut grass.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Writer's Voice: Walt Whitman

Here’s one for all the linguists out there.

I don’t know why I was so struck to hear the audio recording of Walt Whitman below. I guess since the man’s been dead for a hundred and twenty years, I was stunned to discover that such a recording even existed. But what really amazes me is his accent- or his near lack of one by today’s standards.

Outside of a couple non-rhotic ‘r’s on “or” and “earth-” and a short ‘a’ pronunciation that sounds like more like a short ‘e,’ the man sounds more like me than, say, FDR or Kathryn Hepburn, two more recent figures from his mid-Atlantic neck of the woods.

And old Walt’s got a voice for tv or radio, don’t you think? This recitation could pass for voiceover work for the US Office for Travel and Tourism.  I’ll post the text of the poem below:

By Walt Whitman

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.