Monday, June 28, 2010

Barbara Kingsolver, Solver of Kings

"Kingsolver." That would be a great compliment, if it were a term people used for description and not an author's surname. E.g. -- "Jim's a real kingsolver, you know?"

I wanted a Barbara Kingsolver primer before I got started on something of hers that's considered a cut above -- say "The Poisonwood Bible" or "The Lacuna." So I stole or "borrowed indefinitely" a book someone gifted to my mother a couple years back. Mom was finished reading it, to be fair to my sticky-for-books fingers, and she's aware that I've taken it for my own. So these facts justify my theft, I've decided. And anyway, what an enjoyable steal "The Bean Trees" is. Perhaps I might just start "liberating" books from all sorts of places I hadn't thought to before.

As for "The Bean Trees," well . . .

Some female writers nicely execute a very particular kind of coming of age story (Marilynne Robinson comes immediately to mind). Barbara Kingsolver achieves this nice execution, too, in the first part of "The Bean Trees." The second part is different, a narrative depicting her protagonist, Taylor Greer, fully come of age, you could say, and navigating the uncommon circumstances of life, of making one's way. Greer does so by abandoning the town of her birth and upbringing in Pittman County, Kentucky, for the greener pastures of anywhere else. She chooses a westerly path, going north and then south in that direction.

She's leaving the kinds of things that force one to remain static in one place, family and careers and, in general, responsibilities. She notes aptly of the young women in her town's tendency to become impregnated, "Believe me in those days the girls were dropping by the wayside like seeds off a poppyseed bun and you learned to look at every day as a prize." (An especially apt description because have you ever noticed how seeds fall off a poppyseed bun? It's amazing there are any that actually stay put.) Saying Greer's not looking to be tied to responsibilities is obviously not to say she's inclined to be irresponsible, but rather, she's a free spirited, slightly naive wayfarer content to roam and find her niche wherever it appears to her to be. This notion of allowing what will be to be becomes, slowly over the course of the novel, her guiding philosophy.

Taylor goes so far as to change fundamental aspects of her person, remaking herself with the legal change of her name from Marietta to Taylor (after Taylorville, IL, which is the place she is forced to stop in when her gas tank becomes completely empty -- a kind of new name roulette, she plays). She then travels southward where she by chance ends up in a hole-in-the-wall bar/diner whereupon she's spotted by a group of Cherokee who transfer abruptly to her custody a little girl no more than three years old. Thus, ironically, she becomes a young mother in spite of her best efforts to avoid that fate.

With the young Cherokee girl ("Turtle" she nicknames her) in tow, she travels further south to Arizona, settling near Tucson when her tires can no longer bear the burden of the road. She rolls up to a repair shop called Jesus Is Lord Used Tires. There she meets Mattie, an elderly mechanic and proprietor of the shop, who also moonlights as a harborer of Central American refugees. In still more summation of the plot and its participants, Taylor eventually comes to live with a single mother of one named Lou Ann, who is left high and dry by her abusive husband and so needs a roommate to make ends meet.

But enough plot synopsis -- while Kingsolver doesn't floor me with presentation of a story I feel I've never seen before, she is still successful in the most crucial and compelling ways. One of those is that she richly establishes her characters, beginning with Taylor and branching out to Lou Ann (an obsessively careful new mother whose naivety profoundly trumps Taylor's); Turtle, who at only age three is surprisingly present throughout the story, if only referred to offhand usually, but she exhibits traits easily identifiable as the sort you'd expect of a girl her age, becoming a sort of amateur horticulturist with a vast knowledge of the names of vegetables, which she talks about in a still very kid-like way; Mattie, an unflappable and commanding matriarch with a deep devotion to following her own personal moral compass (which involves acting as protectorate to Central American refugees to whom she provides haven in her attic at Jesus Is Lord Used Tires); and though certainly not the only ones left who were carefully wrought, they are the last two whom I think bear mentioning -- Estevan and Esperanza, a couple from Guatemala who are revealed to have suffered a great many hardships en-route to illegal succor in the United States. Estevan's non-sexual but faintly romantic brushes with Taylor provide a strange bit of depth to the story, as well.

All in all, a good read with a fairly basic message -- though it's not always obvious everybody needs help in this world and there are those of us lucky enough to find it in unexpected places, and maybe even didn't entirely see that we'd been getting it all along. Taylor makes explicit reference to the latter point when she talks to Turtle about the rhizobia, a kind of microscopic bug that flourishes on the roots of plants, sucking nitrogen from the soil and making it fertile. The rhizobia implicitly stands in for the people who've helped Taylor get to where she is today, still standing.

On the "20 Under 40" Front Cont.

It must be an awesome feeling to have the kind of insanely acute perception Nicole Krauss has, as evidenced in her entry to the New Yorker's Top 20 Under 40 writers. The story "The Young Painters" is a story about the writers craft, which she subjects to not so subtly being put on trial. She indicates this with frequent references by the narrator, an author, to another individual who's called solely, "Your Honor." The story questions ideas of the culpability / responsibility of an author to his / her source material. It's a longtime conundrum, what right does an author have to co-opt, in a sense, others' stories? Should one feel guilty for doing so? What is owed to the source? It also questions how the author uses such material. Can they hide behind the idea that this is not journalism and owes nothing to "The Truth"? It is the great ambiguous morality of the author. And anyway, Krauss's narrator at least, finishes her tale with the line, "And slowly, Your Honor, I began to distrust myself." I thought that was a pretty nice way to end, dontcha think?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Don DeLillo Train Keeps Rolling After an Extended Layover

This year I've been reading a lot of DeLillo, D. He and Nabokov are my top two selections (although David Mitchell will be up there too, after I finish "Number9Dream" and get my hands on a copy of "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet"). I've still yet to find a novel of his I thought was equal to "White Noise," but none have disappointed me, either (with the possible exception of "Cosmopolis," I suppose).

It's fitting that football season is started for most players already, because "End Zone" is the latest of DeLillo's work I've completed. Now it's largely nothing akin to playing or coaching football. As someone who has done both, play and coach, I feel safe in positing that much. And so suffice it to say, it's missing a realist bent, because as you'd expect there's DeLillo's usual hyper-cerebral, hyper-surrealist satirical pontification and probably earnest theorization abounding throughout the narrative. Every player on the fictional West Texas college team he's conjured has a complex view of the mechanisms of modern life, and shares this view in vivid detail with the story's narrator, one of the team's runningbacks, Gary Harkness.

The story ruminates on a number of different themes: the usual speculative etiology of where man is in relation to where he has been; semantic / syntactical theory and language games as pertaining to realizing one's self more fully; the ontological nature of sport, how it defines something primal about man but at the same time, paradoxically, something very evolved and artfully construed; the clannishness of sport and whether it's encouraging of base jingoistic tendencies or not; and so on.

Moreover, as evidenced again in his most recent novel, "Point Omega," DeLillo sets his story in the backdrop of a barren desert landscape, replete with hazards or at least perceived hazards (players collect horrible bugs with the intention of pitting them against one another in a single confined cage-like place, where they will battle to the death, most likely). Notions of man against nature, and nature certainly operating in this sentence with two meanings or more. There's something necessarily Biblical about such a setting, and I don't doubt for a second this was part of DeLillo's intent in using it. Nothing is more evocative of the caveman, at least to my mind, than the desert, also. Maybe this is because of images I've got stored in my memory of old-time '50s and '60s movies depicting cavemen anachronistically battling dinosaurs in places that look like the American southwest. And so all of the preceding then appearing to me to betoken one of Harkness's earliest lucid descriptions: "We practiced in the undulating heat with nothing to sustain us but the conviction that things here were simple."

At the heart of the team's conception is Emmett Creed, the head coach who contrived with the Logos College president to build the school into a football power. His name indeed is hardly a misdirection; he is moved by his own personal creed, which seems best summed up in a passage of his nearing the end of the novel, when he asks Harkness into his office, saying to him at one point:

It takes character to win . . . It's not just the amount of mileage you put in. The insults to the body. The humiliation and fear. It's dedication, it's character, it's pride. We've got a ways to go yet before we develop these qualities on a team basis.

Yes sir.

I've never seen a good football player who didn't know the value of self-sacrifice.

Yes sir.

I've never seen a good football player who wanted to learn a foreign language.


Later on the same page Creed concludes his rumination on the subject of what it takes to win and the notion of football with:

People stress the violence. That's the smallest part of it. Football is brutal only from a distance. In the middle of it there's a calm, a tranquility. The players accept pain. There's a sense of order even at the end of a running play with bodies strewn everywhere. When the systems interlock, there's a satisfaction to the game that can't be duplicated. There's a harmony.

Odd, but I feel like I know exactly what Creed is saying here. I've thought once or twice myself that sports are great because of how nicely they remove the gray of life. Things like personal responsibility, merit-based ascension, order and fairness, right and wrong all seem to make sense on the football (or most any other field etc of play) gridiron. Like television, it's a place where the villain and the hero are more or less clear, depending solely on whomsoever you choose to root for. And sure, what I'm saying might not be entirely or absolutely true, but it feels true. It feels true to me.

As pertains to the world of the 20 Under 40 crowd and so forth (other literary items):

I've very much enjoyed Philipp Meyer, ZZ Packer, and Gary Shteyngart's short stories. I'm a little perplexed by Salvatore Scibona's "The Kid." On the one hand I think it's a story that's true to life and should be told. On the other hand I feel like it tugs at heartstrings and looks to affect the reader in a way it must necessarily if that reader has a soul, you could say. In other words, it's an important subject but written as he chose to I think it leaves one feeling a little taken advantage of. I'm open to the possibility that this is incorrect thinking on my part, though.

In other news I learned recently that Adam Levin has a novel coming, "The Instructions." I can't really tell you how jazzed I am for this. Very jazzed is all I'll say. Very.

Friday, June 18, 2010

"Ladies & Gentlemen, I Give You -- a Clown!" Cosmoetica's Dan Schneider, Subject of a High-Minded Gchat Discussion

Let me preface this post with two apologies: 1.) I apologize for the sardonic-irreverent tone I'll be taking in the following (as already evidenced by the title), which I honestly hope doesn't detract from the general earnestness with which I approach reading and analyzing literature on this blog (although I acknowledge my posts have frequent tongue-in-check moments just in general, so whatever).

And 2.) I'm sorry for even bringing up the subject of creator and visionary, Dan Schneider, all 6'1" 195 lbs. of him, whom I think debases the discourse merely with his being cited -- and I understand that in so doing I likewise give his "criticism" some level of validity, for which I also want to apologize profusely. So I guess all told that's really three apologies.

Moving on . . .

I co-founded and used to write for an exceedingly unpopular website called The Weekly Johnson. If we specialized in anything it was humor, I suppose. And for a variety of good reasons we discontinued work on the site in 2008 or so. But ya know, shucks, I still remember it fondly -- and recently I let my curiosity get the better of me and searched to see if anyone out there on the Internet-scape was curious about what had become of it. Mostly, predictably, no one had wondered -- pro, con, or neutrally.

That is, with the notable exception of Dan Schneider, who was at some point the subject of an article by my friend and site co-founder, Jamie Ferguson, entitled: "Dan Schneider: Douche Bag".

The WJ now belongs to the internet's Way Back Machines, left to be dissected by future anthropologists or whatsoever might subsume and displace that particular scientific discipline, perhaps something involving cybernetics?

Dan Schneider, meanwhile, remains very much active and screed-ey. And long story made short: Dan apparently found Jamie's article and decided to respond in a way only he would. Good for him, I say.

And but anyway, here in the Rowanverse the fourth law of poetastering is: the Schneiderverse is a, as the delightful Homer Simpson might say, groin-grabbingly awful milieux of the abounding excruciating minutiae that is his oeuvre. But that's not my opinion; that's the law.

And Thus We Respond to Dan with: A High-Minded Gchat Discussion of All Things Schneiderian Whence The Rowanverse:

Matt: hey
found out some stuff
you might be interested - Dan Schneider apparently responded
to that article you wrote about him in the WJ

Jamie: wait, like 3 or 4 years ago?

Matt: he says we're wannabe hipster losers
He's amazingJamie: ha, my goodness
methinks the bard must have googled himself

Matt: methinks he certainly did.
you should see, it gets really megalomaniacal
um, I happen to have 150 million viewers a year
I'm perpetually on the nation's lips.

I think people know who I am

aaaaah. idiocy is like a fine wine.

the only case he has, really, is that the article is glib
but that was the point to begin with

I barely remember writing this.
he's right, though-
i envied him terribly.
still do.

Matt: good god, I know. he doesn't do the best job of refuting
arguments, which might surprise you or perhaps not surprise
you quite so much. his fame... renowned.
you wish you had a Wikipedia article

Jamie: ha! "a liar or an obsessive!" i read one hour's worth of
his barfings one day years ago. and that line was control-c'd
straight off of his damn website. if i was going to slander him
and create typos, why the hell would i choose
something boring like "ensconced"?!?

its possible he leaves typos in his articles all the time

Jamie: did he really save this up in the hate box under his
bed for years? he's so delightfully sad

that's the thing I took away from it

he was like our only reader, apparently

Matt: i literally can't think of anyone else who read it.
anyone we can VERIFY read it, anyway

the fact that he decided to respond says more than
anything else

Jamie: DAN: as for incestual, it's called a neologism.
ME: fine, here's another:
it's what you are, and what you do.

Matt: anyone with a child's grasp of reality could
rip this fool apart. he's a buffoon

Jamie: yay!

Matt: intelligent people use neologisms all the time!

Jamie: naturally. i know that, too. i utilianate
them oftenday

Matt: I wish we still had a copy of the post

Jamie: yep
jon's reading cosmoetica

I sometimes see links to it
on various lit things
but never has anyone mentioned anything in
praise of Schneider although apparently
roger ebert did for some reason

Jon ‎(1:53 PM): ah! so he made up a word
because he was afraid his readers would think
most poets had sex with close
family members

Jon ‎(1:56 PM):
he was lead, after searching deep within the
annals of the internet, to a site
that's been defunct for 3 years

Jon ‎(1:57 PM):
whooooooooa - readership of 150 million...
7 billion hits

Jon ‎(2:03 PM):
this guy is a treasure, wow

Jon ‎(2:04 PM):
every sentence just piles it on
oh, he's not really fat? how wrong you were! what a
fool you've been!

Matt: hahahaaha
i can't believe he wants to prove he's not fat!

Jamie: i know
um, I've got news for you, dan! I actually DON'T
eat papa john's, so
there's another little "fact" you got wrong!

Matt: he proves our every point with wicked efficiency.
it's like he said
oh, a taste of my own medicine, eh?
well how do you like a taste of MY own medicine!

Jamie: you think you can reveal me as the asshole
i am by parroting my childish writing and ad hominem
attacks? how about some ad hominem attacks, typist?!?

Matt: an American hero.

Jon ‎(2:21 PM): oh wait, even better, here's his take on HIS WIFE:

"Jessica is a great poet, but not nearly as vast nor sweeping as I
was (I stopped writing poetry in 2005-
I simply was not challenged by it any longer)."

Matt: this is about the stupidest stuff I've ever read

Jamie: really? "just about"?

Matt: "If most editors and publishers
were as devoted to quality
as I was, we would have less deforestation,
better literature, and most of the good
published writers could,
indeed, make a living. In short, I walk the walk
that others only talk." - Dan Schneider
must destroy Dan Schnieder...
not much time...
puking guts out...

Jamie: really, here's what I should say-
today, I am destroyed. a few years ago, i sarcastically
wrote a piece that on the surface attacked
Dan Schneider- a man I envy more than anything in the world.
i called him a douchebag, a moron,
and a "superheated sack of his own ego,
amongst other things."
how is it possible that people couldn't tell I was joking?
how could ANYONE say such terrible things about him?
"A moron," really? have you SEEN how many
neologisms the man uses?

Matt: "Shakespeare has no more than a dozen great sonnets.
I wrote a series called American Sonnets,
with 154 to match Shakespeare's total output.
You'd have a hard time arguing I missed out on
greatness in a dozen of them." -Dan Schneider.
i am not kidding. he actually said that.
and without further ado, the Schneiderian sonnet.
let history judge. Christopher Guest has
his next muse, if nothing else.

Jamie: today, the world cries,
because Dan Schneider continues to exist.

Matt: today, Dan Schneider cries,
because wah wah wah wah wah!


Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Top 20 Under 40: A Play by Play Update Deal

I haven't posted in a few days BUT I've wanted to, so in lieu of a fully fleshed out review or whatever else I normally do, I've decided to blog a bit about the Top 20 Under 40 New Yorker Lit Edition I've recently gotten my grubby hands on, smudging the pages and such. (--And yes, the preceding was a very long overwrought sentence. Would you expect any better from me? I should hope not, not by now. After all we've been through.)

And so on,

Look, I don't want to say that I hate Jonathan Safran Foer. I have several friends who are great fans of his work. And that might be the same as saying something like, "I have a lot of gay friends" and then unloading some seriously homophobic remark. But anyway, what's the deal, huh? Does his style strike anyone else as maybe a smidgen tediously bull-shitty? I confess I've only ever read the opening pages to "Everything is Illuminated" and his latest New Yorker entry, "Here We Aren't, So Quickly." But how am I supposed to feel about lines like: "We went to Tobey Pond every year until we didn't"? And it would be one thing if the story were told in a way that glossed over an unspectacular line or two, but in this one it seems to revel in them. We're all allowed to be inventive with prose, skilled writers like Safran Foer especially, but I've not recently found inventiveness that was this boring. That is possibly my fault, though.

Other than Safran Foer the only other New Yorker Top 20 Under 40 I've read is Joshua Ferris' "The Pilot" -- which I liked in certain ways, especially with regard to the dithering of the main character, who wrestled with the uncertain question of whether he was truly invited to a party or not. Without giving anything away, I'll just say my attitude is that the ending sort of fell flat when there were a lot of possibilities that might have made for a more climactic conclusion. Doesn't quite live up to his last New Yorker short story, "The Valetudinarian."

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

You've Done Something Again, Adam Levin & McSweeney's Quarterly Concern

I won't say I plan to subscribe to McSweeney's Quarterly Concern. I won't go that far, but after reading back issues from 2005, 16 and 18 to be precise, I will say I'm now largely a fan. The big names (The New Yorker, McSweeney's, The Paris Review, Granta, Ploughshares, Harper's Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, etc.) naturally are subject to increased scrutiny and so also naturally you'll probably hear from one person or another how overrated they are. It comes with the territory of being on top, to be consistently hated, too.

Because of the New Yorker and McSweeney's (Granta, too, which I'll get to in a forthcoming post) -- and the various collections in The Best American series of short stories I've yet come across -- I'm pleased to say I think they're on top for a reason / I'm not a big time hater, although I don't think the bigs are beyond reproach by any stretch, either. McSweeney's has especially impressed me with the two issues I've read. I can't speak for their entire catalog (some issues I read up about online seem a little too experimental in terms of layout for my tastes), but I'd wager they consistently churn out one of the best products in the lit mag biz. And I'll look into further, you can be sure. Point is, I like what I'm seeing so far. OK.

I cite as the latest (in my own reading experience) evidence of this quality of content McSweeney's 16. Adam Levin once again outdoes himself with a short story called, "Considering the Bittersweet End of Susan Falls." Reality is hard to pin down. Is Susan Falls a brilliant lunatic with a spectacularly strange imagination? And what the hell is the "true" story of how she came to be legless at such a tender age as fifteen, she who is a precocious student already enrolled in college? Susan Falls comes in contact with a young female student, presumably at least several years older, named Carla, whom the narrative introduces to the reader as someone Susan has pined for and lusted after in daydreams. Eventually, in a flukey set of circumstances occurring in class one day, they become acquaintances and friends -- all of this if the narrative is to be believed, and it simultaneously asks you to question its validity in a number of ways, which I base on Susan's comments and the general erraticism of the narration itself, unusual but very effective.

One example of what I'm talking about occurs when Carla and Susan are captured in the throes of a faux opium high (which they are unaware the opium is not opium at all but an opium substitute called "Nopium," the narration reveals). Susan has explained to Carla the origin of the loss of her legs in several possible scenarios, and not settling absolutely on one being the cause. This inspires Carla to ask, "Do you have any memories of walking?" To which Susan replies, "I have millions of memories of walking, but I also have memories of dreams, of flying." "Those are dreams, though." "But they feel similar enough, dreams and memories, that it wouldn't be rigorous to trust the distinction." Trust the distinction enough to see that it's an arbitrary one, to a certain extent. That's what Susan is saying. The legs like her gift of flight will still be gone upon returning to the present.

The other stories included in this issue are worth a look, also. Some in particular, although I won't labor over their meaning with as much detail as I provide for Levin's. Some of Denis Johnson's early writings from his National Book Award winner "Tree of Smoke" appear here as "Lucky," which I admit after reading this chapter or so excerpt it did make me want to read the entire novel a great deal more than I had previously (sorry, geez, but it just seems awfully long for Denis Johnson, "Tree of Smoke" does, I mean). Miranda Mellis' "The Doctor of Mental Health" is really neat, and I liked Kevin Moffett's "Medicine Man" a lot also. Roddy Doyle has shown up repeatedly lately in my readings. I have to admit I could not get into his novel "The Commitments" -- although I enjoyed the theatrical version. But I find his short stories more agreeable. "Home to Harlem" in this particular case was a definite highlight. Questions of belonging and the insider / outsider status get explored with new depth in it. All good things.

I've been thinking a lot about why I enjoy reading, short stories in particular. Part of it has to do with a sensation, and I wonder if others know something about what I'm experiencing. I find myself involuntarily reverting to this sensation, like a rush of memory bound to the emotion that triggered its standing out in the first place. Of course this gets abstract and is hard to convey in words, but I will try. Here's trying: my sensations inspired by stories are similar to those I experience when recalling dreams.

Some dreams you have while sleeping likewise feel to me as though they are meant to be shared. Even when, as is often the case, they can't properly be articulated to the receiver, because that person can't appreciate the gamut of feelings tied to it. No doubt all of which contributed greatly to its substance in your own mind to begin with. Usually this accompanies eye-rolling in the receiver, and who could blame them? The idea's expunged and probably won't come back to you in the same way it could have, had it been more difficult to immediately relate.

Alternatively, there are other dreams that aren't meant to be shared, at least at first. These dreams are impossibly hard to relate to another person, usually because they are devoid of any logical narrative whatever, but you bottle them in -- maybe subconsciously -- stow them down somewhere inside and restricted by the mediating powers of the super-ego (Not to get Freudian, or anything), think of it as a fragment of thought detritus. And so it becomes a kind of metaphorical pearl collecting layers and reemerging in your mind's eye as something more interesting, beautiful and so forth than it was when you first stowed it away, unconsciously.

Maybe you're a writer of some talent and you share this "pearl" with others. Maybe they don't realize it's a "pearl" at all, at first, and bottle it away themselves without thought. Maybe like a dream it comes out the same way, as a new "pearl" -- meaning something significant then to that person as well. Then again, probably everything I've just said is whimsical nonsense. But I'm OK with that likelihood.

Short Stories from Around the Web:
I wanted to include a short story I read recently from The Seahorse Folk Revival called "Flickers" by Josh Goller. Maybe it's my fondness for Chicago and that I've been to several of the locales mentioned, possibly it's my appreciation for John Turturro and Coen Brothers films, or perhaps it's that I wish I'd read "The Tin Drum" by now, but this story spoke to me -- and it doesn't get much more subjective than saying that, I believe. Take a look, if your subjective leanings impel you to do so.

On A Somewhat Related Note (in the most tangential sense):
So I'm currently enrolled in education courses at National-Louis University. And one of the classes I've been taking is: "Introduction to Exceptional Children and Adolescents" -- a polite way of describing students with learning disabilities and behavioral disorders, etc. As a result we've been given various written scenarios with which to test our acumen in dealing with students diagnosed with the aforesaid issues. Here is one example:

Sam is in the sixth grade and was diagnosed with autism as a young child. Along with autism he also has obsessive compulsive disorder.

He is currently in all sixth grade classes and is able to achieve at that level fairly well. In addition, he also goes to a resource room for about an hour a day.

And it just sort of goes on in that utilitarian, banal way -- which is totally fine. It's clinical and clean. I'm not exactly complaining. I've just been biding my time, hoping and waiting for something of a little more substance. And that shouldn't be too much of a surprise, given my enthusiasm for weighty narrative and all that good stuff abounding in literature. Friends here in the literary-scape I don't doubt know what I'm talking about. Nothing came, as you might imagine, BUT we were given the opportunity to create our own sketches of troublesome classroom scenarios, and I ran with it -- much to my group mates' perplexity and, perhaps, chagrin.

Here's the fruit (slightly revised) of my running with the opportunity, entitled "Jeremy" -- a play in one act:

Narrator: It begins with Jeremy seated at his desk, very early for class. It was winter. Jeremy hated winter. And worse, he didn't have anymore cigarettes, confiscated by the hated dean, Dean Mann. Also, he'd recently changed medications. He is troubled but not trouble.

(Mr Veronica Enters)

Narrator: Mr. Veronica is coming to grips with a recent breakup, his wife has run off with an ex-student whom he already despised. He's never been a fan of Jeremy, what's more.

Mr. Veronica: Didn't think you'd show up.

Jeremy: I've got my own problems, man. Quit riding me. We're four days from graduation -- grin and bear me.

Mr. Veronica: You!? Graduate?

Jeremy: All right, you're so tough? Prove it!

Mr. Veronica: I wouldn't waste the time to wipe you off my boot.

(Jeremy knocks over his desk and springs upward, raising his fist and taking a swing at Mr. Veronica's face just as the first bell rings, to the stunned expressions of the earliest arriving students bearing witness.)

Narrator: Mr. Veronica died of bone cancer later that year, after a long struggle.


Monday, June 7, 2010

About The Changes You Might Have Noticed -- Right Up There Above in the Banner Section, See?

Wellity, this has been a long time coming. At last, a change of aesthetic, of which there had previously been none, and which will now offer something of a distinctly unique flavor to my blathering, literary or otherwise. I'm glad to be so identity-ful now, and for that I have one man to thank! Who is it, you ask? It's Matt Heindel, a denizen of just outside of Madison, Wisconsin. It's he who is the artist behind the new banner, depicting a portly Bob Einstein wondering about the many books he has read and will read.

So now I'm forever in Matt's debt. Think Morgan Freeman in "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves." Matt is now Kevin Costner as Robin Hood in that particular movie. This allusion makes perfect sense and I do not regret using it. Some of Matt's work can be viewed at Headlock Manufactory, which is also worth a gander if I do say so myself.

Russell Crowe had nothing to do with any of this, and who cares about him.

Briefly Noted:

The New Yorker bites back, calmly and eruditely, regarding their "Best 20 Under 40" fiction writers selected. I'm such an easy sell that I finally caved and bought Gary Shteyngart's "Absurdistan." And what's more, I'll mos def be looking to find books by the other authors chosen, too. Chris Adrian, Yiyun Li, Wells Tower, ZZ Packer -- you just better be ready for me. Hell, I'll go so far as to say I'll probably finally, if reluctantly, read a Jonathan Safran Foer novel. How's that, huh?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The New Yorker's Top 20 Under 40 -- That's BULLSH*T or IS IT? You Decide . . .

I've decided to complain / lament the fact that I wasn't even considered for The New Yorker's Top 20 writers under 40. And no, friends and fans, you can be sure I was not considered. Tut-tut, it's true. And so nothing more needs be complained about and lamented with regard to my not even maybe being talked about apropos of possibly being considered for consideration. What's done is done, and I only hope The New Yorker can live with its mistake.

But hahnestly,
I'm surprised by how little I take issue with those listed. GAWKER tongue-in-cheekly offers advice for how an author who didn't make the cut might complain about it, which complaining as I've shown is always a viable option. But eh, what's good is good. It comes down to taste, true. Anyone who reads me regularly (thanks, you mighty handful, you) knows I've become very fond of Adam Levin and Patrick Somerville / would definitely have included those two on my own list. But well, let's take a look (pulled from "Book Fox"):

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 32
  • Chris Adrian, 39
  • Daniel Alarcón, 33
  • David Bezmozgis, 37
  • Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, 38
  • Joshua Ferris, 35
  • Jonathan Safran Foer, 33
  • Nell Freudenberger, 35
  • Rivka Galchen, 34
  • Nicole Krauss, 35
  • Yiyun Li, 37
  • Dinaw Mengestu, 31
  • Philipp Meyer, 36
  • C. E. Morgan, 33
  • Téa Obreht, 24
  • Z Z Packer, 37
  • Karen Russell, 28
  • Salvatore Scibona, 35
  • Gary Shteyngart, 37
  • Wells Tower, 37

  • Ok, so, yes, I've at least heard of nearly all of them. So that's one thing to start with. I especially won't argue with the inclusion of Joshua Ferris or Chris Adrian or Wells Tower or Jonathan Safran Foer or Gary Shteyngart or Phillipp Meyer or Z Z Packer, all of whose work I've encountered in one form or another and, to lesser or greater extent, found merit-worthy. So I've got nothing bad to say about those specifically named in the naming of The New Yorker's 20 great authors under 40.

    But the best negative criticism I've heard made regarding any of this, at least so far, comes from a GAWKER commenter, DorothyBarker, who says:

    Any "____" under "____" chaps my ass (namely cause I'm never on them...). But seriously, what is the point, in the world of fiction? Does being young(er) make you better? Obviously: no. So it's to draw attention to them? Why? Most of these folks are doing jusssfine; indeed, the very fact that they're 'under 40' probably means their early works were successful, well reviewed, etc. And if you get off on the right foot, particularly in the literary're pretty good to go. You become one of those literary darlings, and then that takes on a certain momentum, and you get the NYTimes review slots, and get on Charlie Rose and Style Section "At Home With..." features in your Park Slope neighborhood, and on and on. While other great writers toil away; successful, but never quite getting that foothold. Instead, why not a "20 Writers we've never talked about but you should read" list? Because seriously, if William Boyd doesn't start getting some love soon...I'm not kidding. Read some William Boyd. You won't be sorry. (Blue Afternoon or Any Human Heart for starters; you'll thank me.)

    Don't even get me started on writers who can't even get major publication; we all know they're out there. Maybe the New Yorker should've tried to MAKE some writers, not just tell us about ones who've already made it. How about THAT?
    It's true, pretty much. Not that I blame The New Yorker for wanting to showcase young talent, but it's no surprise that all the writers listed with the exception of Philipp Meyer, C.E. Morgan, Salvatore Scibona and Dinaw Mengestu (although even these four have gotten at least a write-up of some kind in "Books Briefly Noted" or on The New Yorker blog "The Book Bench" -- which I proved with a quick search of the ol' New Yorker archive, I did) have to some extent, usually with a fiction entry (in Safran Foer's case, lengthy repeat mention of his latest non-fiction book, "Eating Animals."), already been printed in The New Yorker, and WAHOO! They will be again, as reward for making the list!

    If there's any argument for the prominence of an incestuous world of literary exclusivity, this would probably indeed be it. But then, what's that say? You can look at it from a variety of standpoints, although most probably one of these two: siding with The New Yorker -- i.e. it's their prerogative who and how they want to publish, and it makes no difference why they deem a given author to be of note -- the whole process is inherently subjective, anyway.

    Or siding with the spurned outsider a la DorothyBarker's description -- i.e. if The New Yorker truly wants to make a statement then they should be less thrilled about what Deborah Treisman, The New Yorker fiction editor, told The New York Times was the "rewarding accident" of an even number of men and women making the cut, and focus more on the challenges that authors of less renown face with respect to Treisman's ancillary point attached to the "rewarding accident," which was, "in terms of what it says about equal opportunity on the literary playing field these days." Yes, men and women have got more parity in terms of being published along gender lines, but as the inclusion of literary heavyweights like Safran Foer, Tower and Ferris invariably suggests, there's still an oligarchy here, a perceived creme-de-la-creme when you get down to it, whether they're deserving or no.

    But then repeating what The New Yorker should say, it's all subjective, anyway, and for them to decide, duh. Quit with the sour grapes and make a list of your own about great writers under 20. List yourself for all they care.

    ADDITIONAL THOUGHT: Meanwhile, I'll probably do just what I always do and scour this list for writers I enjoy reading. Thanks, The New Yorker! Thanks a million!

    Wednesday, June 2, 2010

    Bits and Pieces of This-That Literary Topic

    First, damn you, Jonathan Franzen, for f*%#ing wrecking any hope I might have had for a sprightlier than usual morning thanks to your most recent New Yorker short story, "Agreeable." Stories about the subtly unloved offspring of various politically-motivated and self-serving adults tend to have that effect on me. I'll say little else about it, just that it's draped with the veil of this is going to depress you, outcome-wise.

    Ok here's a smidgen more and then that's it, I mean it! A little context is, the story follows Patty, an athlete in a family that doesn't value athletics or the competitor's draconian gusto, despite that they resemble the kind of thing D.G. Myer's cites from Sam Munson's novel, "The November Criminals" -- "at the small scale nobody behaves in accordance with all the high ideals they talk about; everyone acts like animals, domesticated animals maybe, but still animals." The parents are domesticated animals operating under the veil (many veils to this story) of high-mindedness, which makes them only sub rosa domesticated animals -- whose inhumanity is just as pervasive but much more opaque.

    I liked and found this particular excerpt from the story to be the most enjoyable and relatable to my own athletic experiences, occurring in the midst of Patty demonstrating her superior athletic prowess and the response of other players who didn't behave with the same zeal for sport, to wit:
    Patty bore down straight at her, and the girl ran squealing into the outfield, leaving the base path for an automatic out, but Patty kept chasing her and applied the tag while the girl crumpled up and screamed at the apparently horrible pain of being lightly touched by a glove.
    Jens Lekman's whimsical, melodic drawl is a nice antidote to the Franzen melancholy I got, though. So there's your silver-lining.

    I zipped through W.S. Burroughs' surprisingly thoughtful meditation on the house cat in, "The Cat Inside." And here is one excerpt that I believe more than adequately represents the kind plaintiveness with which the book is rife:

    The cry I heard through Ruski was not only his signal of distress. It was a sad, plaintive voice of lost spirits, the grief that comes from knowing you are the last of your kind. There can be no witness to this grief. No witnesses remain. It must have happened many times in the past It is happening now. Endangered species. Not just those that actually exist, or existed at one time and died, but all the creatures that might have existed.
    I finished McSweeney's 18, which was put out for the viewing public in January of 2005 -- so this was a longtime coming. I've already expressed my fondness for some of the stories, most especially "Hot Pink" and "Bad Habits," and "People Are Becoming Clouds" by Adam Levin, Joyce Carol Oates and Joe Meno respectively. But others included were more than enjoyable, also, if I wasn't quite so enthusiastic about them. Chris Adrian's "The Stepfather" was just the sort of quizzical mystery of modern life that I find so amusing and fun to dissect (the short of it being a family of stepchildren connive to rid themselves via murder of a stepfather whom they cannot abide).

    "My Hustlers" by Edmund White caught my eye, too, and not strictly for the fact that it mentions briefly and not praisingly my hometown, Des Plaines. Nelly Reifler's "The Railway Nurse" was a bizarre jaunt, made all the more bizarre by the abounding tangential and potentially untoward references of the aspiring Railway Nurse's affinity and love for her brother, who played so much a role in her pursuing the eponymous profession. Then lastly, "Happiness Reminders" by Rachel Haley Himmelheber was reminiscent of some of David Foster Wallace's experimental fiction formats that I liked in "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men." And it surprises me not so very much that McSweeney's would get behind a style of storytelling like Himmelheber's, which to be clear, is not in my opinion an aping of Wallace as much as it is an inspired take on his format, with a flavor uniquely her own, too.

    Lastly, I'm giving some serious thought to starting my own online-based literary magazine. I have no ideas for a name, as yet, but I do have a theme in mind -- one I think has been grossly neglected by the literary scene of the webscape. I've talked about doing this before, but I'm even more earnest about it this time. I swear!

    Last of Lastly, whatever happened to the Denver Bibliophile's blog? I noticed recently there were no posts emanating from that domain and was saddened to discover the account's been deleted. A pity!