Friday, June 28, 2013

The Tour!

I gave pretty short shrift to Roland Barthes’ Mythologies  when I “reviewed” it last year. But since the Tour de France is kicking off tomorrow, I thought I’d share an excerpt from the book on just that subject—to give you a taste for his analysis (with a few paragraph breaks inserted for readability):
“The Tour’s geography, too, is entirely subject to the epic necessity of ordeal. Elements and terrain are personified, for it is against them that man measures himself, and as in every epic it is important that the struggle should match equal measures: man is therefore naturalized; Nature, humanized. 
"The gradients are wicked, reduced to difficult or deadly percentages, and the relays-each of which has the unity of a chapter in a novel (we are given, in effect, an epic duration, an additive sequence of absolute crises and not the dialectical progression of a single conflict, as in tragic duration)- the relays are above all physical characters, successive enemies, individualized by that combination of morphology and morality which defines an epic Nature. The relay is hairy, sticky, burnt out, bristling, etc., all adjectives which belong to an existential order of qualification and seek to indicate that the racer is at grips not with some natural difficulty but with a veritable theme of existence, a substantial theme in which he engages, by a single impulse, his perception and his judgement.”
“The dynamics of the Tour itself are obviously presented as a battle, but its confrontation being of a special kind, this battle is dramatic only by its décor or its marches, not strictly speaking by its shocks.
"Doubtless, the Tour is comparable to a modern army, defined by the importance of its materiel and the number of its servants; it knows murderous episodes, national funks, and the hero confronts his ordeal in a Cesarian state, close the divine calm familiar to Hugo’s Napolean (“Gem plunged clear-eyed into the dangerous descent above Monte Carlo”). 
"Still, the very action of the conflict remains difficult to grasp and does not permit itself to be established in duration. As a matter of fact, the dynamics of the Tour knows only four movements: to lead, to follow, to escape, to collapse. 
"To lead is the hardest action, but also the most useless; to lead is always to sacrifice oneself; it is pure heroism, destined to parade character much more than to assure results; in the Tour, panache does not pay directly, it is usually reduced by collective tactics. To follow, on the contrary, is always a little cowardly, a little treacherous, pertaining to an ambition unconcerned with honor: to follow to excess, with provocation, openly becomes a part of Evil (shame to the “wheel-suckers”). 
"To escape is a poetic episode meant to illustrate a voluntary solitude, though on unlikely to be effective, for the racer is almost always caught up with, but glorious in porportion to the kind of useless honor which sustains it (solitary escapade of the Spaniard Alomar: withdrawal, hautiness, the hero’s Catilianism a la Motherlant). Collapse prefigures abandon, it is always horrible and saddens the public like a disaster. On Mount Ventoux, certain collapses have assumed a “Hiroshimatic” character. These four movements are obviously dramatized, cast into the emphatic vocabulary of the crisis; often it is one of them, in the form of an image, which gives its name to the relay, as to the chapter of the novel (Title: Kubler’s Tumultuous Grind). Language’s role is enormous here, it is language which gives the event- ineffable because ceaselessly dissolved into duration-the epic promotion which allows it to be solidified.”

—from Mythologies , by Roland Barthes

Thursday, June 27, 2013

"People will come, Ray."

I am not a big baseball guy. And I don’t usually go in for magical realism. But… BUT—rarely a summer goes by that I don’t sit down and watch “Field of Dreams.”  It’s one of the few movies that can still make me cry like a little girl.

Now, you may know that the film is based on a book called Shoeless Joe , by W.P. Kinsella. And if you know that, then you probably know (or can guess) that the character of Terrance Mann was originally written as real-life recluse J.D. Salinger. But what you may not  know, is that we have none other than Salinger himself to thank for James Earl Jones’s memorable portrayal of Terrance Mann.  The producers were so worried about a lawsuit from Salinger, that they renamed the character and changed up his race. I, for one, don’t think you can argue with the results:

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Buyer Beware: Vol. 2

This isn’t  the book you’re looking for…

Try this one instead:

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Review: The Sea is My Brother, by Jack Kerouac

A week or two ago I picked up The Sea is My Brother,  the so-called “lost” novel by Jack Kerouac, and a thinly veiled account of his days in the merchant marine.

I’ve been told by people who have dipped further into the Kerouac mystique than I have, that while  “good” Kerouac is great,  “bad” Kerouac is pretty terrible. For evidence, I was invited to read Visions of Cody  or Big Sur  —each of which reportedly indulges in drug-induced poetry binges for hundreds of pages. I have not read them, and probably never will. But having loved On the Road  so much, I was intrigued to find out just how an early  Kerouac might read.

Turns out it’s pretty uneven. There are small flashes of the style that would evolve in later years, but he spends way too much time cataloguing how many beers each of the characters consume at a sitting, or letting one of them wax philosophical about life and literature in a way that is pretty obviously a soapbox for the author rather than believable dialogue. Oh, and every tenth sentence ends with an all-too-enthusiastic “, by George!” Not only that, but the story is pretty unbelievable (a college professor is granted a sabbatical to ship out to sea in the middle of the war with about 15 minutes’ notice) and there are lots of little mistakes (a character smokes his last cigarette and then produces another a minute later.)

Even the larger narrative feels unbalanced. With a title like The Sea is My Brother , you’d expect the characters to put out to sea, right? Well, it finally happens seven eighths of the way through the book. The rest of it is just a poor man’s On the Road , a hitchhiking debauch from Manhatten to Boston, where the characters are flat broke, but always magically coming  up with food, liquor, cigarettes and costly government documents out of thin air. And while the principals do manage to move from point A to point B, it’s really more of a loose sketch than a fully developed novel. In all honesty, I kinda wish I had this one back. I’ll bet Kerouac does, too.

Monday, June 24, 2013

What They Were Reading: Wallace Stegner

From a 1974 interview between James Day and “Wally” Stegner. The whole thing is fascinating, but the really good stuff starts at about the 22 minute mark:

STEGNER: I think probably there’s no point in teaching people who don’t have a noticeable gift. Often there’s no point in teaching people who do  have a noticeable gift, if they don’t have those qualities of character, or neurosis or whatever it is that keep them at it. If they can be stopped, they’ll stop.

DAY: What is the gift?

STEGNER: The gift is partly of the senses, I think. It’s basically a gift of the senses, a gift of observing and also, I suppose this is William James’ doctrine, the gift of quick association so that one thing suggests another and things go together to become something new and ahead. I’m not a psychologist and you’d better not follow my formula, but I think it has to do with senses in the first instance. And then it has to do with the gift of words. A lot of writers have been writers of some consequence, however, without the gift of words-Dreiser being one. He just comes over you like a tank leaving his tread tracks in your lawn, and he clanks and grinds and so on, but he does tear up your lawn alright. And he never wrote a good sentence in his life. Not a one, I think.

DAY: So how do you measure good fiction then?

STEGNER: I think the measure should be nothing that one person defines. I can tell you the kind of fiction that I like. That’s about the best I can do, and the kind of fiction that I like is a kind of fiction which is not only perceptive, and which has people in it who are plausible people, and which has some relation to real life.

DAY: It’s important to you that it do relate to real people.

STEGNER: Oh yes, I’m a realist. I never get over that. I told you I was a nineteenth century character. I don’t know what it’s about unless it’s about real life. I don’t see any point in turning real life upside down, unless what you’re doing gives you a better look at real life, like looking at a view through your spraddled legs. That’s alright. I don’t mind that. But the ultimate thing is that illusion of reality, and some kind of commentary on reality. So I would guess that anybody who has something to say about reality, who can say it in memorable ways is going to appeal to me. And sometimes they get away with it even if they can’t say it in memorable ways. If they have, as Dreiser had, every gift of the novelist, except the verbal gift. He’s a great feeler. He knows how people feel in certain situations, and he is structurally, a man who can build bridges that reach from here to there. They go from bank to bank. But I guess if I were picking the kinds of people that I like best, what is good fiction, I would pick people like Checkov, Conrad, Turgenev. I seem to be very Slavic about it. Those are the people I’d take to my desert island if I had to take some three.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Feature Film Friday: Salinger

This isn’t technically a feature film, but it’s the trailer for one. And it looks amazing. Can’t wait:

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Title Chase: The Sea is My Brother, by Jack Kerouac

I've been working my way through Kerouac's first and, until it was released posthumously two years ago, rightly unpublished, novel The Sea is My Brother . The book draws on Kerouac's own brief experience in the Merchant Marine. Or, at least, that's what I thought it would be about. Here's where the title comes from:
“Perhaps the old adage, “We’re all in the same boat” went without saying in the Merchant Marine and seamen resigned themselves to one another quite philosophically. And of course, like the slogan he had heard of—a famous placard above the door of the Boston Seamen’s Club—which said, very simply, that all those who passed under the arch of the door entered into the Brotherhood of the Sea—these men considered the sea a great leveler, a united force, a master comrade brooding over their common loyalties.”
I'll have more to say about the book later on, but I thought the title was a good one. That is, until you consider the make-up of the book:

Perhaps Kerouac's "brief experience" in the Merchant Marine was briefer than we thought. Afterall, we know his active duty in the US Navy lasted all of 8 days before he was diagnosed with dementia praecox and honorably discharged.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Author Look-Alikes: Vol. 16

Shave off Sherwood Anderson’s eyebrows and you’ve got Chris Cooper:

Turn Gustave Flaubert’s hair white and you’ve got Wilford “Diabeetus” Brimley:

Pump E.E. Cummings full of red blood cells and performance-enhancing drugs and you’ve got Lance Armstrong:

Give Saki a smirk and a wristwatch and you've got Bob Hope :

Give Somerset Maugham a consiglieri and a 'family' of hired goons and you've got Don Corleone:

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Practice Shelf Actualization This Summer-- sincerely, Science

Summer's here, and people's summer reading recommendations are out in full force. So I thought why not add one of my own. Here it is: 
Read something good. Read something challenging. Read a classic or two.
In the world of lay book bloggers I’ve noticed some pretty vociferous opposition to the notion that people should read “good” books instead of dividing all their time between wildly popular vampire novels and the latest blockbuster S&M fantasy. Those who advocate reading the so-called classics or high-minded literary fiction often get labled as snobs for doing so. The basic argument against these people seems to be that it doesn’t matter what  folks read, as long as they are reading (which, they always fail to realize, is merely snobbery of a different sort.)

I guess I can get on board with that argument… to a point. Reading is  an essential life skill that improves the lives of those who possess it. And reading just about anything will foster that skill. But does it really not matter what  we read?

That’s like saying that eating is essential your health and wellbeing, but that it doesn’t really matter what  you eat so long as you are eating. Nevermind that a constant diet of Big Macs and Twinkie chasers (may they rest in peace!) will eventually land you in home hospice care with an oxygen tube up your nose and a nurse to administer sponge baths to the folds and crevices you can no longer reach by yourself.

I don’t begrudge anyone the hot new Dystopian Young Adult title or the occassional Epistolary Urban Fantasy Steampunk Romance, just like I don’t deprive myself of inordinate amounts of chocolate chip cookie dough or obstain from Black Raspberry Dark Chocolate Chunk ice cream. But sheesh, if that’s all your reading? (Or eating?) It’s time to recalibrate.

Now, would I rather have my kids read a crappy book, than spend the afternoon shooting heroine? Sure. No question. But would I rather have my kids read a crappy book, than spend the afternoon shooting hoops? Probably not.

And yes, this all depends on what your definition of ‘classic’ is, or what ‘good’ or ‘crappy’ mean to you in terms of books. But let’s be honest, it’s not tough to recognize challenging fiction, or a brainless beachread, when you see it. So, read something that will challenge you. Read something that has stood the test of time. Read a classic. And this isn’t me being a book snob, this is backed up by science. Check this out:
“Researchers at the University of Liverpool found that serious literature catches the reader's attention and triggers moments of self-reflection.”
"...Serious literature acts like a rocket-booster to the brain. The research shows the power of literature to shift mental pathways, to create new thoughts, shapes and connections in the young and the staid alike," Philip Davis, an English professor who worked on the study with the university's magnetic resonance centre, said.”
“...The academics were able to study the brain activity as readers responded to each word, and noticed how it 'lit up' as they encountered unusual words, surprising phrases or difficult sentence structure.”
“...The research also found poetry, in particular, increased activity in the right hemisphere of the brain, an area concerned with 'autobiographical memory', which helped the reader to reflect on and reappraise their own experiences in light of what they had read.”

“The academics said this meant the classics were more useful than self-help books.”
Who can argue with that?  Improve yourself. Improve your shelf.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Review: The Garden of Eden, by Ernest Hemingway

I don’t expect much when I pick up a posthumous work of a great author. I expect even less when it’s the fourth, and final, posthumous work of that author to find its way to publication. But I was pleasantly surprised when I finished Ernest Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden the other day.

What starts out innocently enough as a story of two newlyweds honeymooning on the post-war Riviera, quickly becomes a Fitzgeraldesque tale of an artist struggling to ply his trade with a crazy wife who is jealous of her husband’s writing. Then it veers into a sticky half-fictional situation like Hemingway experienced vacationing in the South of France with his wife Hadley, and live-in girlfriend and future-wife, Pauline Pfeiffer—only with a few important details altered to make the male character come off a little better than he did in real life.

There is lots of swimming, lots of tanning, lots of passive-aggressive dialogue, lots of mixed drinks, and lots of hair styling. Yes, that’s right, hair-styling. In the end, though, this is a book about writing. Which is why it works for me. Hemingway brilliantly works a couple short stories, and the process of writing them, into the main story of love gone sour. Though the reader never actually reads them, they see the main character of David Bourne reliving the childhood experiences on which they are based as he writes them, and therefore come to a deeper understanding of who he is as a person.

Ironically, in a story where a writer reading his own press clippings becomes a major plot point to his own detriment, Hemingway leaves a few clues that he, too, was guilty of reading his own press clippings, dropping references to his newspaperman style and his iceberg theory of writing:
“He wrote it in simple declarative sentences with all of the problems ahead to be lived through and made to come alive.”
“Finally he knew what his father had thought and knowing it, he did not put it in the story.”
“He had, really, only to remember accurately and the form came by what he would choose to leave out. Then, of course, he could close it like the diaphragm of a camera and intensify it so it could be concentrated to the point where the heat shone bright and the smoke began to rise. He knew that he was getting this now.”
He also talks through his editing process, and his conviction that the work has to marinate on its own:
“It was a very young boy’s story, he knew, when he had finished it. He read it over and saw the gaps he must fill in to make it so that whoever read would feel it was truly happening as it was read and he marked the gaps in the margin.”
“He cared about the writing more than about anything else, and he cared about many things, but he know that when he was doing it he must not worry about it or finger it nor handle it any more than he would open up the door of the darkroom to see how a negative was developing. Leave it alone, he told himself. You are a bloody fool but you know that much.”
Last of all, Hemingway puts into fiction what he must have experienced when his wife lost nearly every page of his years of hard work:
“You can write them again.” 
“No,” David told her. “When it’s right you can’t remember. Every time you read it again it comes as a great and unbelievable surprise. You can’t believe you did it. When it’s once right you never can do it again. You only do it once for each thing. And you’re only allowed so many in your life.” 
“So many what?” 
“So many good ones.”
The bottom line is that this novel is probably less interesting for the story it tells, than for the insights it gives us into the life of the author as he surveyed his 60 years and wove it into his fiction. I liked it. You might, too.

Friday, June 14, 2013

"Seldom Seen" Sleight?

One of the books I’ve recently placed a hold on at my local library is Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang . Not necessarily a literary classic, mind you, but I think it’s a book most people would put in the western canon. No, not thatWestern Canon , but the canon of important works set in and about the American West.

Anyhow, last night I’m reading my college alumni magazine (Go Utes) and I stumbled across this profile of the man who was the real-life inspiration for “Seldom Seen”  Smith, the ringleader of Abbey’s ragtag group of fictional environmentalist misfits. Though he’s still alive and well, retired river guide Ken Sleight isn’t spilling the beans on how much of Abbey’s tale is based on actual events. But I still get a kick out of discovering the truth behind the fiction…

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Writer's Voice: Arthur Conan Doyle

The only known recording of the Sherlock Holmes creator. He would die three years later. Fascinating stuff. He explains what bugged him about earlier detective stories, and how he changed all of that with the character of Holmes.

Is it me, or is his Scottish accent a heckuvalot nearer today’s standard American accent than the Scots we hear in the media today?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Buyer Beware: Vol. 1

This isn’t  the book you’re looking for…

Try this one instead:

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Another Month in the Can

Today we pack up another month and throw it in the archives. Above are the authors we’ve covered this month, and below are the five most popular posts from that period:

And of course, some of the great search terms that led folks here:

  • Does Dirk Pitt have a  pet?   >> We don’t know, but here’s our ode to the adventure novel, the only place we've mentioned him.
  • Plot Twist in Farewell to arms  >>  from the comments of this post
  • Nelson Algren  >>  Our last Short Story Club Selection.
  • At the cancer clinic  >>  Ted Koozer knocks it out of the park
  • Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station  >> Yep. We've covered it.
  • Milkman compared to lily owens  >>  In our Links to the Past post
  • Around the world in 80 days airship  >>  THERE'S NO SUCH THING !!!
  • Death of a traveling salesman eudora welty or arthur miller  >>  Answer: Welty
  • Vinyl  >>   Another great poem
  • Proust Memory  >>  Could be this piece or this piece.

Thanks for visiting. You’re welcome back any time.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Literary Product Placement

Did you know that  clear back in the 1870s, shipping companies lobbied Jules Verne to include them by name in his novel Around the World in 80 Days ? Even in the nineteenth century, corporations saw the potential for product placement advertising in literature. 

I stumbled upon the following list on Wikipedia the other day. It’s a list of literary references for the old-fashioned breath freshener Sen-Sen, which you can still find today, I believe. I’d bet that maybe only Coca-Cola could generate a longer list than this:
  • Michael Chabon references them in his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
  • Toni Morrison references them in her novel The Bluest Eye.
  • Zora Neale Hurston references them in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.
  • John D. Fitzgerald references them in his novel The Great Brain.
  • Betty Smith references them in her novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
  • Robert Asprin has a character called "The Sen Sen Ante Kid" in his novel Little Myth Marker. The character plays Dragon Poker and always starts the game by adding a Sen Sen to the ante.
  • Stephen King references them in his novel 11/22/63  as well as in his novella The Library Policeman.
  • Philip Roth references them in his novel I Married A Communist.
  • Ray Bradbury references them in his novel Death is a Lonely Business.
  • Robert Penn Warren references a character named Sen-Sen Puckett "who chewed Sen-Sen to keep his breath sweet" in his novel All The King's Men.
  • Phillip K. Dick references them in his novel Ubik.
  • W. Somerset Maugham mentions them in his novel Of Human Bondage.
  • John Steinbeck references them in the novel The Wayward Bus.
  • Thomas Harris references them in the novel The Silence of the Lambs. "... she felt the ache of his whole yellow-smiling Sen-Sen lonesome life..."
  • Christopher Bram references them in his 1988 novel Hold Tight.
  • Chuck Palahniuk references them in his 2011 novel Damned.
  • Margaret Laurence references them in her novel A Bird in the House.
  • Lanford Wilson references them in his play Talley's Folly.
  • They are also referenced in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire.
  • They are referred to in the song "Ya got trouble" in the movie and play 'The Music Man'

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Review: Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner

I really enjoyed this one.

We’ve talked about the sentence level writing here. It’s clever, it’s funny, and for an aspiring writer of my tastes, anyway, Stegner’s prose just hurts so  good. He’ll blow my mind with an amazingly simple simile or description (“the sun lay on my back like a poultice”) that both makes the reading a pleasure, and simultaneously crushes my hopes of ever having a shred of his talent. He’s one of the few writers about whom I think we should make a much bigger deal.

Stegner was among the first graduates of the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and he founded the Creative Writing Program at Stanford, teaching authors like Ken Kesey, Edward Abbey, Gordon Lish and Larry McMurtry. The man’s got a Pulitzer and a National Book Award, and yet you never hear the name of this ‘Dean of Western Writers’. As a westerner myself, I guess I feel a special affinity for him. Plus, we went to the same high school (see also Barr, Roseanne, class of ’70). Go Leopards! So there’s that.

Anyway, the book is littered with literary references— from the Bible, from the classics, from history, from novels and poems, of which I probably only grasp about 40%. But that 40% makes me feel awfully smart, and the remaining 60 just makes me want to read more. But what he really does that amazes me, is create interesting stories out of everyday lives and experiences. His narrator even addresses this issue in the text:
“There are further considerations I might raise. How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these? Where are the things that novelists seize upon and readers expect? Where is the high life, the conspicuous waste, the violence, the kinky sex, the death wish? Where are the suburban infidelities, the  promiscuities, the convulsive divorces, the alcohol, the drugs, the lost weekends? Where are the hatreds, the political ambitions, the lust for power? Where are speed, noise, ugliness, everything that makes us who we are and makes us recognize ourselves in fiction?”
Without all the lurid crap that populates so much of literary fiction, he still stitches together a story about things that truly matter: marriage, friendship, family, work, adversity, history, etc.

There was  one stretch where a whole lot of backstory was jammed uncomfortably into a few pages of dialogue, but that’s about the only fault I can find with the book. You should check it out- it was his swan song, afterall:

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Author Look-Alikes: Vol. 15

Ezra pound is supposed to have died years ago. But are we sure he isn’t running Cuba?

In the category of shaggy-headed, white-haired poets, I give you Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Walt Whitman:

Great smiles, bushy eyebrows, pushbroom mustaches… Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Juan Valdez are both a great credit to their Colombian homeland:

Hair chopped short and smiling eyes, here's Carson McCullers and Annette Benning:

Now, I threw the Kennedy Wildcasts “K” on Tim O’Brien’s hat. But I didn’t really have to. He’d still be a dead ringer for the gym coach in “The Wonder Years” (Robert Picardo). Neither of them seem to go anywhere without their ball caps:

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

"I am doing the country like Cezanne"

We’ve mentioned Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” here. And we’ve drawn analogies between great painters and writing styles here. But did you know that young Hemingway was quite literally trying to mimic Cezanne's painting style in words when he wrote “Big Two-Hearted River?”

He wrote the following to Gertrude Stein at the time:
“I have finished two long stories ... and finished the long one I worked on before I went to Spain where I am doing the country like Cézanne and having a hell of a time and sometimes getting it a little bit. It is about 100 pages long and nothing happens and the country is swell.”
And of Cezanne’s In the Forest of Fountainbleau  (pictured above)  he once said:
"This is what we try to do in writing, this and this, and woods and the rocks we have to climb over."


Monday, June 3, 2013

"All are equal in the grave"

“I want you, Sancho, to think well and to have a good opinion of plays, and to be equally well-disposed toward those who perform them and those who write them, because they are all the instruments whereby a great service is performed for the nation, holding up a mirror to every step we take and allowing us to see a vivid image of the actions of human life; there is no comparison that indicates what we are and what we should be more clearly than plays and players. If you do not agree, then tell me: have you ever seen a play that presents kings, emperors, and pontiffs, knights, ladies, and many other characters? One plays the scoundrel, another the liar, this one the merchant, that one the soldier, another the wise fool, yet another the foolish lover, but when the play is over and they have taken off their costumes, all the actors are equal.”
“Yes, I have seen that,” responded Sancho.
“Well, the same thing happens in the drama and business of this world, where some play emperors, others pontiffs, in short, all the figures that can be presented in a play, but at the end, which is when life is over, death removes all the clothing that differentiated them, and all are equal in the grave.”
“That’s a fine comparison,” said Sancho, “though not so new that I haven’t heard it many times before, like the one about chess: as long as the game lasts, each piece had its particular rank and position, but when the game’s over they’re mixed and jumbled and thrown together in a bag, just the way life is tossed into the grave.”
“Every day, Sancho,” said Don Quixote, “you are becoming less simple and more intelligent.”

—pearls of wisdom from Don Quixote, by Miguel Cervantes