30 December 2008

New Hampshire Thanks You, Mr. Bush

from The Concord Monitor:

Is Franklin Pierce due for a promotion? Pierce, the only New Hampshire man elected to the White House, is a perennial nominee for Worst President Ever. But as that office's current occupant finds his own reputation under attack from many historians and the public, Pierce could move up a notch from the bottom of the presidential rankings -- a boost Pierce partisans say is long past due.

"When I speak to groups, somebody always asks, 'How does it feel to know your man is no longer the worst?' " said Peter Wallner, author of a recent two-volume biography of Pierce. "I take a little bit of pleasure in the fact that (President George) Bush is viewed by them as worse than Pierce."

Actually, Pierce is generally not listed as the worst, but rather one of the worst -- James Buchanan, Millard Filmore, Warren G. Harding, and a few others make all the lists, and when the lists are ranked, Pierce is seldom number one. But still. Mr. Bush, we thank you for nudging his legacy a little bit farther from the bottom.

It's also interesting to note the maiden name of President Bush's mother, Barbara, is Pierce. She is a fourth cousin four times removed of Franklin Pierce. Mr. Bush has been making the rounds lately, "polishing his legacy" (excrement can be polished?), blaming everybody else for his failures, and perhaps now, citing his mother's ancestry, he could add one more excuse: "I couldn't help myself! It's in my genes!"

26 December 2008

This Gene is Not a Hedgehog

from an article on nomenclature in New Scientist (via Bookforum):
"We had particular problems with fruit-fly researchers," says Sue Povey of University College London, who chaired the committee approving names for human genes from 1996 to 2007. "They were always giving their genes names like hedgehog."

Harold Pinter (1930-2008)

Harold Pinter has died.

Here are the last words from one of his last plays, Celebration:


The WAITER stands alone.

When I was a boy my grandfather used to take me to the edge of the cliffs and we'd look out to sea. He bought me a telescope. I don't think they have telescopes anymore. I used to look through this telescope and sometimes I'd see a boat. The boat would grow bigger through the telescopic lens. Sometimes I'd see people on the boat. A man, sometimes, and a woman, or sometimes two men. The sea glistened.

My grandfather introduced me to the mystery of life and I'm still in the middle of it. I can't find the door to get out. My grandfather got out of it. He got right out of it. He left it behind him and he didn't look back.

He got that absolutely right.

And I'd like to make one further interjection.

He stands still.

Slow fade.

21 December 2008


We sleep, and at length awake to the still reality of a winter morning. The snow lies warm as cotton or down upon the window-sill; the broadened sash and frosted panes admit a dim and private light, which enhances the snug cheer within. The stillness of the morning is impressive. The floor creaks under our feet as we move toward the window to look abroad through some clear space over the fields. We see the roofs stand under their snow burden. From the eaves and fences hang stalactites of snow, and in the yard stand stalagmites covering some concealed core. The trees and shrubs rear white arms to the sky on every side; and where were walls and fences, we see fantastic forms stretching in frolic gambols across the dusky landscape, as if Nature had strewn her fresh designs over the fields by night as models for man's art.

--Henry David Thoreau, "A Winter Walk" (1843)

The first day of winter. It's been snowing here for the past few days. This comes after devastating ice storm just over a week ago, a storm which caused half the state's homes and businesses to lose power for a significant time (some places still don't how electrcity).

The snow, though, so long as you don't have to travel anywhere, is quite peaceful. The above photo is from my livingroom window.

And now it's time to put another log in the stove, make some tea, and grade a few more final exams...

A Few More

Inevitably, I forgot some books I enjoyed greatly this year when I wrote my post about books I'd encountered in 2008. Despite my feeling that I hardly read anything in 2008, and that much of what I did read didn't appeal to me, I'm discovering that neither feeling is particularly true, and this is a pleasant discovery. So here are a couple more books I enjoyed mightily this year:

The Situation
by Jeff VanderMeer: I forgot this one because I had read a version of it some time ago and so never associated it with 2008. It's marvelously strange and an excellent study of office life, and PS did a great job with the production of the book itself.

Orpheus in the Bronx: Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry by Reginald Shepard: I reviewed this for Rain Taxi, and it was easily one of my favorite books of the year -- I think I forgot it because it's a book that resides in my mind among books that have been around a while, books that made a deep impression, books you repeatedly recommend to particularly discerning readers. I want to say something more, particularly given that Shepard died this year, but all the vast praise I feel impelled to heap upon the book can be summed up as: Read this book, think about it, argue with it, consider how much we have lost with Shepard's early death, and be grateful for how much he accomplished during his life, how much he gave to us, his readers.

19 December 2008

Dear Mr. Obama

I've been skeptical of most (not all) of Barack Obama's cabinet appointments, and even aghast at a few, but I've never felt "betrayed" by him, since he's been honest all along about his moderate views and his "pragmatism" (generally a support for minor changes to the status quo), and I do think it's worth waiting to see how he and his cohorts govern before giving up completely on anything resembling optimism. Obama's better than Bush or McCain and he's not another white guy, so I was quite happy when he won the election. I keep my standards for politicians low, and that way I can occasionally be pleasantly surprised. Idealists are always disappointed and depressed; honest cynics now and then have to admit that humanity isn't entirely dreadful.

But the choice -- not Obama's alone, but he's said he supports it -- of Rick Warren to give the invocation at the inauguration really pissed me off. No softer words can encapsulate the annoyance, frustration, and real anger that I have felt about this since it was announced. Part of the strength of my feelings is annoyance at myself for letting my guard down, for buying into some of the symbolism of this inauguration, for wanting and expecting more from Obama than I've ever wanted or expected from a politician before. For letting my standards rise a couple of millimeters.

Since I had let myself slip into believing the symbolism, I thought I might as well go whole hog and actually join the discussion happening at the Obama team's website, change.gov. Those of us who felt the inclusion of Rick Warren in the inauguration to be not just a "bad decision" but a nausea-inducing kick to the gut can let our voices be counted, and perhaps even read. Here is what I wrote:
The choice of Rick Warren to give the invocation at President Obama's inauguration is appalling not because of Warren's opinion about a ballot initiative (even if it was one that hatefully took rights away from people) or his apparent belief that homosexuality is a disease needing curing -- the choice is appalling because of the symbolism.

The inauguration is not a conference or a summit where ideas are tossed around and debated; it is a symbolic moment, one that, in this instance, for good or ill, will resonate for many years. The belief that not-primarily-heterosexual people are not equal to primarily-heterosexual people is not a simple opinion deserving respect and equal consideration any more than the opinion that another group of people is subhuman deserves respect. The invocation for this profoundly symbolic event will now be given by a man who believes -- and who acts upon his belief, encouraging other people to join him in it and to create laws based upon it -- that a group of people are, because of who and how they love, less deserving of equal human rights than he is.

Millions of people voted for Mr. Obama because they believed in equal human rights. Millions of people voted for Mr. Obama because the symbolism of his presidency would offer, they thought, a new hope for a more just future for all people. The invocation at the inauguration should have been an opportunity to strengthen and extend that symbolism, to encourage people to act for justice. Instead of encouraging "tolerance" of hatred and spite and ignorance, the invocation should have encouraged us toward a greater understanding of what it means to seek a better world for all people, regardless of who they pray to (or don't), what they look like, where they're from, who they love. It wasn't specific policy proposals that caused the widespread passionate support of Mr. Obama, it was our belief that he held a more generous view of his fellow human beings than do such people as Rick Warren.
It was written quickly in the heat of the moment, and I tried not to sound like a kook, which can be difficult at times. Hopefully, it won't just be kooks like me writing in.

17 December 2008

The Ubiquitous Bolaño

I find it mildly embarrassing to be so enamored of Bolaño these days. I picked up By Night in Chile and Distant Star back when they were the only Bolaño books available in English -- back in the dusty old days of, what, 2005? -- and they both perplexed me and impressed me; then when Last Evenings on Earth came out, I picked it up and was blown away -- something really felt like it exploded in my head, and I went back and reread parts of By Night in Chile and Distant Star and they felt so much richer than they had before. I had, in some ways, been teaching myself how to read Bolaño.

There was great praise of Bolaño from the moment the first translations appeared, but the praise and admiration for Bolaño back then felt restrained and quiet compared to what would happen when The Savage Detectives came out -- suddenly it seemed like Bolaño had been made the saint of all literature. I was excited, yes, but also a bit fearful, and I resisted Savage Detectives for a while, partly, I think, because praise of Bolaño seemed ubiquitous, and I just couldn't believe -- didn't want to believe -- that here was a writer who could be so universally popular. Sure, I loved him, but how could everybody else? It was disturbing. I particularly didn't think it possible that a writer like Bolaño could be so truly adored, because he is a writer whose work seldom has much of a linear plotline (if it has a plotline at all), likeable characters, or lyrical prose, the things that so much of the world seems to want fiction to have.

I started to distrust even my own response to the books -- did I really like them, or did I just want to avoid upsetting the overflowing bandwagon? I suffered angst and self-distrust. I didn't leave the house for days. I abjured my very basic knowledge of Spanish and tried to remember some German. (Ach, German! I said to myself, remembering that earlier sensation in translation, W.G. Sebald, a writer I have much admired but not yet learned to love.)

And then came 2666 in two gorgeous editions from FSG (I bought the 3-volume slipcased paperback, since the hardcover seemed a bit unweildy) and the praise just continued, like kudzu or a deadly bender. Of course, at some point it will stop. Won't it? People will pick up the books and be bewildered by them and decide it's all just hype and they will turn, backlashing, against we who praise -- we who must, they think, be full of horse effluent: "How," they will say, "can you really and truly think that is any great shakes?"

The phenomenon of Bolaño's success in translation (a separate sort of success, I think, from success in one's own language -- and his translators, each excellent, deserve much praise as well, particularly in as translation-averse a country as the U.S.) is itself beginning to become a topic. The new issue of The Chronicle Review contains an interesting, though not particularly probing, essay by Ilan Stavans about the sudden rise of Bolaño's popularity and, in particular, about 2666, a book he has some reservations about (the article is only online to subscribers or people who have access via various institutions, alas):
Alas, Bolaño's work is rapidly becoming a factory for scholarly platitudes. More than a year ago, I had a student who wrote his senior thesis on the author. My student started early in his junior year with a handful of resources at his disposal. By the time he had finished, the plethora of tenure-granting studies was dumbfounding: Bolaño and illness, Bolaño and the whodunit, Bolaño and the beatniks, Bolaño and eschatology, etc. Since then, interviews, photographs, e-mail messages — everything by or about him — are perceived as discoveries (even though most of the material was never lost to a Spanish-language audience).

The rapture must have been the same when Borges, long a commodity among a small cadre of followers in Argentina, shared with Samuel Beckett the International Publishers' Prize in 1961. Suddenly he became an overnight sensation in translation around the world. Such instant celebrity occurs when writers are able to prove that the local is universal: They exist in their corners of the world but are able to recreate the world entire. For Borges, that happened because after World War II readers were eager to look at Latin America, and the so-called third world in general, as a cradle of a worldview that was both different and refreshing.
Stavans goes on to ask an important question: What does Bolaño offer that was so quickly attractive to such a broad swath of the U.S. literati? (I'll leave it to others to ruminate on his popularity elsewhere.) Stavans suggests that it is because the fiction offered to us by "mainstream publishers" has grown "complacent", that the genres offered are "suffocating", that we want somebody to shake it up, a prophet, and that Bolaño is the one who has been annointed.

There's something to this, but I don't buy it completely (I might have been more persuaded if Stavans had had more space to expand upon his ideas). There is, indeed, an energy in Bolaño that is not available in most mainstream U.S. writers, a blithe disregard for the strictures of fictional form as they have ossified over the years into the current cant about "what a novel is", a willingness on Bolaño's part to make his own forms as he sees fit, and to have fun with those forms, a playfulness seen in only a few U.S. writers whose work is published by mainstream publishers, though it's much less absent from the books published by many small presses. Most of the U.S. writers who have a sense of playfulness in their fiction get chastised for thinking fiction is a "game", but I haven't yet seen Bolaño get criticized for this.

Perhaps we expect people from south of us to be a little ... odd like that. They speak a funny language, they write weird books, so it's all just fine. It's kind of cute, actually.

No, there's something more to it -- I think Bolaño escapes being criticized for gaming the system because he also writes about Big Stuff: dictatorships and mass murder and evil and stuff. He does it in a weird way, yes, because he doesn't have magical things happen to his dictators the way the other people who write in his funny language do, but that's part of his appeal -- we've got shelves of the other sorts of books about dictators and mass murder and stuff. The roundabout way he does it, it's kind of fun. Even though books should not be fun if they're Serious, well ... we like this kind of funlike Serious. Don't we? Yes?

Oh, I don't know. I don't understand the mass mind, so why am I trying to explain?

At least I've found one person who isn't buying into the hype: Nick Antosca. Having just finished reading 2666, he says that though he often found it enthralling, he also found it just as often tedious (and, by the way, he thinks Jonathan Lethem's NY Times review is insane):
The fourth book, "The Part About the Crimes," is the one everyone talks about. It is a list of murder scenes. It is a desert of boredom containing sites of interest. Once in a while, things happen--certain characters reappear (a suspect, a few detectives). Young women are being killed in a Mexican city. We don't see the crimes, we just get a detached third person voice describing the bodies. Always, "the hyoid bone was fractured." Occasionally there are scenes of horrific prison torture and murder. (These scenes are much more disturbing than the murders, which we never "see.") I found this section the most problematic--it is generally tedious, for one thing, but worse, I think it's exploitative. I haven't heard anyone else say this about 2666, but I really felt like Bolaño was using the murders for literary capital--using the dead women as props, as flavor, and illuminating nothing. (Remember, these are based on real murders--hundreds of women dumped in the desert outside Juárez.) Describing horrific crime scenes in a politely repetitive tone for 300 pages isn't interesting, productive, compelling... it's wasteful and it's boring, and after a while I became angry at Bolaño for building his novel around this litany in what seems a very arbitrary way. Certainly a powerful novel involving the Juárez murders (which do feel apocalyptic and unreal) could have been written. This isn't it.
I found Nick's post (and the comments from Bolaño haters after it) liberating -- I'm not as embarrassed to love Bolaño as much as I do anymore, because finally I know of at least a few people out there who don't share my feeling. This is comforting.

Meanwhile, Wyatt Mason (who doesn't love Savage Detectives as much as I do, bless him!) is more enamored of 2666 than Nick, and uses a paragraph from it to explain why he admires this particular bit of writing and not the first sentence to A Canticle for Leibowitz:
To those who have written me to say that can’t imagine why I dislike so violently the first sentence of A Canticle for Leibowitz, I offer these sentences as exemple of what I do like, very much. They leave something to the imagination, while, at the same time, present quite an imagination at work.
And now, for Bolaño lovers and hater alike, a new translation of a short story, "Meeting with Enrique Lihn", translated by Chris Andrews. Here are the first sentences:
In 1999, after returning from Venezuela, I dreamed that I was being taken to Enrique Lihn’s apartment, in a country that could well have been Chile, in a city that could well have been Santiago, bearing in mind that Chile and Santiago once resembled Hell, a resemblance that, in some subterranean layer of the real city and the imaginary city, will forever remain. Of course, I knew that Lihn was dead, but when the people I was with offered to take me to meet him I accepted without hesitation. Maybe I thought that they were playing a joke, or that a miracle might be possible. But probably I just wasn’t thinking, or had misunderstood the invitation. In any case, we came to a seven-story building with a façade painted a faded yellow and a bar on the ground floor, a bar of considerable dimensions, with a long counter and several booths, and my friends (although it seems odd to describe them that way; let’s just say the enthusiasts who had offered to take me to meet the poet) led me to a booth, and there was Lihn.

Rain Taxi Benefit Auction

The great and glorious magazine Rain Taxi is holding a benefit auction to raise some money. They're offering a wide assortment of books and book-like items of all sorts and genres for sale -- some real treasures.

RT is a wonderful source of information on books that otherwise are difficult to learn about, and I have relied on them for years now. In a time when book coverage is disappearing from the mainstream media, it's particularly important that venues such as Rain Taxi exist.

16 December 2008

Books This Year

I've had a few requests to participate in various "best books of the year" surveys, and I've avoided them all, mostly because I have read so few new books in 2008 that I wouldn't be able to contribute anything of value. It's been easily the most difficult year of my life for more than one reason -- any one of them would have made it the most difficult year of my life, but there were more than one! -- though things are going fairly well now, and I'm less stressed out than I have been in a while. This is good. But a difficult year doesn't lead to a lot of reading or even keeping up with what's being published. In fact, moving from New Hampshire to New Jersey to New Hampshire over the course of 18 months saw me losing books right and left (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not).

But I thought it would be fun to try to remember some of the books I've encountered this year, particularly since circumstances have kept me from writing very much about a few of them...

I began the year with two books that were Christmas presents: All the Rage: The Boondocks Past and Present and The Complete Far Side. Though the folks who gave them to me couldn't have known it at the time, these were perfect gifts: my father died a few days before Christmas, and my life changed completely. I had no ability to handle much text at the time, but brilliant comics, yes, that was exactly what I needed.

The first novel I read in the new year was Cormac McCarthy's The Road, read on a plane while flying back from a quick trip to southern New Mexico. Except for certain elements of the ending, it seemed to me a perfect book in its own way. I'm sure I would have a somewhat different and more judicious response were I to read The Road now, but I treasure that first encounter with it. It was, for me, exactly the right book at exactly the right time.

The next book I remember encountering in the early part of this year was J.M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year -- Coetzee is my favorite living writer in English, and so anything he writes interests me. My memory of reading it remains vivid, while I've utterly forgotten plenty of other books I've read more recently.

I failed to make much progress with the Africa Reading Challenge, though I have read about half of Histories of the Hanged (it's vivid, excellent, painful, fascinating). I still plan on reading all of those books, but it's likely to be a few months before I have the time.

I dipped into a bunch of fun anthologies throughout the year, though never managed to read enough of even one to be able to write a review of any of them (my fault, not the anthologies') -- the VanderMeers' Steampunk and New Weird and John Joseph Adams's Wastelands and The Living Dead are the ones that stick out in my mind at the moment.

Even by the spring, I was still having trouble handling really meaty texts, so I found refuge in reading a bunch of old Spider novels. They were easy reads, and I never felt guilty about skimming. Pure bliss!

Lydia Millet's How the Dead Dream remains a high point for my year as well, again because it was just the right book for me when I read it. The sentences and pacing were beautiful, the situations and imagery strange and lyrical, the comedy biting. What stuck with me most from it were the scenes with the animals -- there is a grace to those scenes that I have rarely found in fiction.

Glancing at the archives here, I see that May included two books that were a lot of fun to read: Money Shot by Christa Faust and Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. Both were easy reads with something to think about as well, and though not books I would consider the best of this year or of any year, they did what they needed to do, and they did it well.

One book I would consider the best of any time is John Williams's Stoner, which was a real highlight of my 2008 reading.

Another highlight of the year, though one I did not write about, was Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives. I have noted my love of Bolaño before, but I didn't mention Savage Detectives for a few reasons -- for one thing, there's been lots of other good writing about it, but also my reading of it has often been interrupted, and I've never had a much more intelligent thought about the book than, "Wow!" (Oddly, looking at that earlier Bolaño post, I see that I thought I was going to get Savage Detectives when it came out. I didn't. I waited for the paperback.) I had some trouble getting a handle on the first section of the book, and put it down a few times because of that, but eventually something clicked, I reread the first part, then jumped into the second section by taking big gulps separated by days. This seemed to work well. I kept developing a hunger for the book, returned to it, read 50 pages or so, then put it aside for a few days until the hunger returned with all its strength. I didn't quite get to the last section, though, when life caused me to have to put it aside, and it's only now that I'm returning to it, jumping back and forth throughout the second section to refresh myself about who is who and what is what. It's a marvelous way to read this particular novel -- I've rarely enjoyed a book as deeply.

I didn't get to too many short story collections this year, but among the ones I did encounter, the best were Paolo Bacigalupi's Pump Six and Jeff Ford's The Drowned Life (which I actually still haven't finished reading -- but it's a magnificent book, even if I've got a few more stories to go). Both are books that deserve an audience beyond the community of science fiction readers -- after all, most of us who know the SF world already think highly of Ford and Bacigalupi.

I read all three of Ursula Le Guin's recent YA novels: Gifts, Voices, and Powers, but though they were pleasant enough to read, they didn't really do much for me. Voices was my favorite by far, though even there I thought Le Guin was treading on ground she'd walked more gracefully before, particularly in Four Ways to Forgiveness, just about my favorite of her books.

This summer I devoured Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life by Julia Briggs, one of the most interesting and comprehensive explorations of a writer's process of writing and thinking that I've read.

Because I spent much of the summer preparing to teach a class on Feminism in America, I read a lot of feminist history and theory in a short amount of time, trying to find texts that would be useful to my students. One that I didn't end up using, but which I found fascinating and enlightening, was Cynthia Fuchs Epstein's Deceptive Distinctions: Sex, Gender, and the Social Order, a valuable look at how gender roles and gender differences are discussed and studied.

My other favorite discovery among the many books I read in preparation for the feminism class was White Women's Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States by Louise Michele Newman. I even made the students read an excerpt from the book for class (they didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I did, but it gave us a tremendous amount of fodder for discussion). It's a dense book, certainly, filled with information and ideas, but I found it to be, unlike many academic books, gripping.

I started reading Nick Flynn's Another Bullshit Night in Suck City and Mike Davis's Planet of Slums. Liked both a lot. Hope to finish them ... someday....

I read a few books by Meja Mwangi in preparation for writing an essay about him. I still intend to write the essay, but need to read more books and review the ones I have read before I can. I had previously read Going Down River Road, and then this year read Kill Me Quick, Carcase for Hounds, and The Mzungu Boy. Next up will be Cockroach Dance, The Last Plague/Crossroads, and The Big Chiefs. I discovered Mwangi because some Kenyan writers spoke highly of his work to me -- indeed, among Kenyans I have found far more people willing to cite Mwangi as a formative influence than the contemporary Kenyan writer many people outside of Africa probably most closely associate with Kenya, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o.

As I chronicled at Strange Horizons, my re-reading of Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang was a powerful one, and I can report now that my students mostly seemed to enjoy the novel. I ended up pairing it with Borges's "Garden of Forking Paths", Ha Jin's "Saboteur", and Blade Runner (I was going to have the students read Mishima's "Patriotism" and then watch the movie, but I put this on the syllabus before watching the movie myself, and once I did watch it, I realized it was much too slow for the students to really appreciate.) I'll have a better sense of the results once I finish grading final exams, but the students mostly said they enjoyed the book, at least in comparison to the others I asked them to read.

The Journal of Jules Renard was another highlight of my reading year, a book that, like Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, I would especially recommend to writers.

I almost forgot to mention Brian Slattery's Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America -- a book no home should be without during an economic collapse!

Speaking of economic collapse, I've been taking good advantage of the library to read things like The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism and Eric Rauchway's Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America to get some opinionatin' on economic history, a realm I only occasionally dip into. I also read The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism by Andrew Bacevich because Rachel Maddow said nice things about it one night on her show and, well, I'd really kind of like to be Rachel Maddow... (Fun fact: Rachel Maddow, Samuel Delany, and my paternal grandfather all share a birthday. I'm certain this means something in the grand scheme of things. Especially since it's April Fools' Day.) It is, indeed, worth reading.

Most recently, I read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success and enjoyed it quite a bit, somewhat to my surprise. I had read some of Gladwell's previous work and had often found it a good read, but somewhat facile -- too neat, too clean (if that makes any sense). Outliers I liked more than the others, partly because I was already familiar with some of the research that it is founded on, having read a few books by Robert Sternberg and other writers on intelligence, talent, and accomplishment. Still, much of the information was new to me, and Gladwell presents it in his typically entertaining way -- his talent is not only for summing up complex ideas, but for narrative itself: he tells a good story. He conclusions are, once again, a bit facile, but I also think the general thrust of his arguments in this book is one that deserves as wide an audience as possible, and given his popularity, it might actually receive that audience.

Finally, though for some reason I hardly read any poetry this year, what I did read blew me away. I kept The Reservoir by Donna Stonecipher on my living room table for a few months, and numerous people picked it up and glanced at it, all of them quickly finding themselves sucked in. "This is really ... good..." they'd say, or, "This is weird, but -- I don't really know quite what this is saying but -- what is this? It's amazing!" These were not all poetry people or even people who read much. It's a beautiful, mesmerizing book, and rewards not just the quick glances that caused my visitors to be intrigued by it but real, sustained, careful reading.

The other poetry book that blew me away this year is one I've only recently received: My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, which is a treasure-trove of extraordinary stuff. I discovered Spicer via Alex Irvine's novel One King, One Soldier -- I'd probably seen Spicer's name in various anthologies, but had never paid much attention to him until reading the novel -- and soon was on a quest to read his books, but it was hard because almost nothing of Spicer's poetry was in print. Eventually, I got a library copy of The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, but, it being a library copy, I had to give it back. The new collection includes all of the old one and a lot more. Ron Silliman says it is "one of the most important volumes published in the past 50 years. It is hands down the best book published in 2008. And it is one of the most powerful collections of poetry you will ever read."

Meanwhile, at the moment I'm reading The Boy Aviators in Nicaragua, or, In League with the Insurgents, which is ... about what you'd expect.

09 December 2008

"And then there's no other choice but to write"

The truth is, I don’t believe all that much in writing. Starting with my own. Being a writer is pleasant -- no, pleasant isn’t the word -- it’s an activity that has its share of amusing moments, but I know of other things that are even more amusing, amusing in the same way that literature is for me. Holding up banks, for example. Or directing movies. Or being a gigolo. Or being a child again and playing on a more or less apocalyptic soccer team. Unfortunately, the child grows up, the bank robber is killed, the director runs out of money, the gigolo gets sick and then there’s no other choice but to write.

--Roberto Bolaño

08 December 2008

New Practical Physics

I've turned my story "New Practical Physics", originally published in Say...What's the Combination? in 2007, into an experimental hypertexty bloggy thing (that's the technical term). I thought it would take an hour or two, but then I got to fiddling with the layout, searching for pictures and links, etc., and an hour or two turned into hours of work over many days.

But I think the work was worth it. Collage is my favorite art form, and this has made the story even more of a collage than it was originally, so I'm now happy enough with it to share it with y'all.

05 December 2008

Help a Writer and Publisher Facing Foreclosure

Writer and publisher Vera Nazarian has been terribly affected by these difficult economic times and by some personal emergencies. She and her ailing mother are now facing foreclosure.

Now folks are joining together to try to help her.

I can testify to the fact that Vera is tremendously diligent and immensely generous. Nobody should have to go through what she's going through in what we're told is the richest country in the world.

If you can send money, if you have items you can donate to auction or sell, etc., please do. I'll post more info as it becomes available.

Update 12/8: And it is done! The total amount past due on Vera's mortgage was raised in 3 days! There are still items for sale and auction, and future monies will go to helping Vera get new sewer pipes, medical care, etc. This wasn't the first time I donated to help a writer or person associated with the world of books out of a crunch, and it certainly won't be the last, but every time reminds me what a great community we can be in times of trouble. Hooray, hooray, hooray!

BAF '08 Story-by-Story Discussion

BookSpot Central is hosting a roundtable discussion of the stories in volume 2 of Best American Fantasy -- first up is M. Rickert's "Memoir of a Deer Woman". It's an ambitious project, and I look forward to following it.

Music Meme

I love happenstance and serendipity with music, so am quite attracted to a music meme Andrew Wheeler just shared:
1. Put your iTunes (or any other media player you may have) on shuffle.
2. For each question, press the next button to get your answer.
Here we go...

Izakunyatheli Afrika Verwoerd (Africa is Going to Trample on You, Verwoerd) -- from This Land is Mine: South African Freedom Songs

Six O'Clock News -- John Prine

Another Man's Vine -- Tom Waits

Pagan Poetry -- Björk

I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine -- Bob Dylan

I Kill Children -- Dead Kennedys

Humdrum -- Peter Gabriel

Brother Flower -- Townes van Zandt

Cataracts -- Andrew Bird

Straight -- Amanda Palmer

Honey in the Rock -- Blind Mamie Forehand

Steam Powered Aereo-plane -- John Hartford

Television Man -- Talking Heads

Drifter's Escape -- Bob Dylan

Castles Made of Sand -- Vance Gilbert

Soul Mining -- The The

Sweet 16 -- Bob Peck

Aim to Please -- TV on the Radio

Onions -- The Mountain Goats

Killer Queen -- Queen

Demento -- Kill Memory Crash

Echoes -- Pink Floyd

Two Good Men (Sacco & Vanzetti) -- Woody Guthrie

Nice Work if You Can Get It -- Billie Holiday

Nightswimming -- REM

Floe -- Philip Glass

Peter -- Marlene Dietrich

I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground -- Bascom Lamar Lunsford

Wow. Those really are random, but a lot of them are oddly appropriate.

Now a fun challenge would be to write a story from all those. If I weren't already trying to write a story based on a stray comment about a group of songs I mentioned to Brian Slattery, I'd give it a try.

03 December 2008

I Fought the Law

Internet access troubles (rural New Hampshire, snow) kept me away for a while, and I missed the 30th anniversary of the assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk on November 27. I first learned of this moment in history during my undergraduate years in the mid-90s, all thanks to the Dead Kennedys song "I Fought the Law (and I Won!)".

What, I wondered then, did "Twinkies are the best friend I’ve ever had" mean? Who was Jello Biafra singing about in the line "I blew George & Harvey’s brains out with my six-gun"? I loved the song because my father had a 45 of one of the earlier versions that I listened to a bunch, so the changes in the DK version thrilled me, even though I had no idea what the song was about (this was in the days before the internet and quick Googling). At the same time, I was trying to educate myself on gay history, and when I read about the assassinations and the supposed "Twinkie defense", I suddenly realized what the song was about.

And so, belatedly, for the 30th anniversary of a terrible day, here's a live video of Dead Kennedys performing the song in Los Angeles in 1984:

(If you want to hear the original studio version of the song, which is somewhat more comprehensible, it's available here.)

22 November 2008


i know we're going to meet some day
in the crumbled financial institutions of this land
there will be tables and chairs
there'll be pony rides and dancing bears
there'll even be a band
'cause listen, after the fall there will be no more countries
no currencies at all, we're gonna live on our wits
we're gonna throw away survival kits,
trade butterfly-knives for adderal
and that's not all
ooh-ooh, there will be snacks there will
there will be snacks, there will be snacks

--Andrew Bird, Tables & Chairs"

21 November 2008

Octavian Nothing II

I happened to tell Colleen Lindsay that I was reading M.T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation; vol. 2: The Kingdom on the Waves, and she asked me if I would write about it for her site rather than my own, and because I was feeling charitable and generous and easily swayed by flattery, I agreed. And my rather odd and deeply conflicted review was just posted. Actually, I wouldn't even call it a review. More a personal reflection with occasional review-like qualities. Or a series of soul searches in search of an author. Or something.

13 November 2008

Delany & Diaz Reading in NYC November 24

If anybody would like me to feel deep, visceral envy of them, they should attend the Monday, November 24 St. Marks Bookshop Reading Series where the readers are Samuel Delany and Junot Diaz.

Even if you don't care if I feel deep, visceral envy of you, you should attend if you can, because it's likely to be a phenomenal evening.

10 November 2008

Yammer & Blab

Colleen Lindsay asked me to write a little something for her blog, perhaps something about MFA programs (though I've never attended one), perhaps advice to beginning writers (though there are vastly better people to receive advice from), perhaps pictures of sickeningly cute animals. I dithered, then wrote this.

Pictures of sickeningly cute animals will have to wait.

07 November 2008

John Leonard (1939-2008)

What I look for and care about in these various bunkers is the slice of the strange, the surprise of the Other, the witness not yet heard from, the archaeologies forgotten or ignored or despised. What I think about almost anything, from Henry Kissinger to Deng Xiaoping, from the doctrine of transubstantiation to the theory of surplus value to a tax on capital gains, from Murphy Brown to Thelma and Louise to Jelly's Last Jam, is a mess of juxtapositions, miscegenations, transplants and hybrids, atavisms and avatars, landlords and tenants, ghosts and gods; grace-notes and cognitive dissonance -- Chaos Theory, with lots of fractals.

--introduction to The Last Innocent White Man in America

Isn't it kind of stuck-up, wanting to live forever?

--"Tropic of Cancer"
All through my teen years, if I happened to sleep past 9 am, one of my parents would yell, "John Leonard's on!" and I would be awake and rushing downstairs to see the brief segment of "CBS Sunday Morning" where my oracle would hold court. I still have the old videotape on which I recorded all of the John Leonard segments that I could capture when the machine was cooperating. The weeks when he was on vacation or otherwise mysteriously absent were weeks of disappointment, because nobody else could chew on a sentence the way John Leonard did, and nobody else had such marvelous sentences to chew on.

And yes, now we speak of him in the past tense.

It's barely hyperbole to say that John Leonard taught me everything I know. I discovered him at one of the most impressionable times in my life, and he opened up a world of contemporary literature for me. I remember buying The Last Innocent White Man in America at (the late, lamented) Wordsworth Books in Cambridge, MA after it was mentioned on "Sunday Morning" -- I remember because it had never occurred to me that John Leonard might have written something somewhere, or that he did things other than offer televised wisdom once a week. The first half of the book is mostly about American politics (Reagan and Bush 1, Mike Dukakis and Jesse Jackson, Pat Buchanan and David Duke), and I found it strange and fascinating and more than a little disturbing, because I had only begun to escape from the knees of conservative jerks, only begun to realize there are other things to worry about than if the Russians will confiscate all our guns. I hardly even knew how to read paragraphs like this:
To get our minds off the war, we thought about the Big Bang and we went to a farce. We also went to protest rallies, but they don't count. After each protest rally, the crazy generals on the networks explain that our qualms, which shouldn't have launched in the first place becaue the New World Order has argument superiority, were shot down anyway, by anti-qualm Patriot absolutes. In my living room, I'm beginning to think I need a gas mask.
I learned to read his rhythms, though, and they soon infiltrated my own -- the writer I have had to work hardest to exorcise from my own words is John Leonard, and there are moments in conversation still when I will insert a Leonardism ("atavisms and avatars", "Chaos Theory -- with lots of fractals", "a zap to the synaptic cleft", "In the library, that secretariat of dissidents, they don't lie to me" -- and those are just from one particularly influential page!). Because I first got to know him via the TV, Leonard's voice is always there in my head with his words. It is a perfect voice, with a perfect sense of timing, one I'd even take over Dylan Thomas, who stole the voice of God. John Leonard didn't need to steal God's voice, he'd made his own, scarred by cigarettes and alcohols, halfway between a songbird and Tom Waits.

I've never stopped reading John Leonard, and I thought he was the perfect replacement for Guy Davenport as the regular reviewer at Harper's each month -- it was always the first page I turned to when the new issue arrived.

He seemed to have read everything, and that seeming burst into his style, one rich with bursting sentences -- just consider the title of my favorite of his collections: When the Kissing Had to Stop: Cult Studs, Khmer Newts, Langley Spooks, Techno-Geeks, Video Drones, Author Gods, Serial Killers, Vampire Media, Alien Sperm-Suckers, Satanic Therapists, and Those of Us Who Hold a Left-Wing Grudge in the Post Toasties New World Hip-Hop. I think my passion for minimalism comes from having overdosed on Leonard when I was young -- nobody else afterward ever seemed to fill up a page with quite the same panache.

Robert Christgau got at all this well at the end of a review of When the Kissing Had to Stop, and noted some of Leonard's blindspots and weaknesses along the way:

Novel lovers of every birthdate share his disdain for the Poisoned Twinkies. But when his essay on the cyberpunks, whom he's sci-fi enough to enjoy, ends by suggesting they read Toni Morrison, fight Viacom, and help the homeless, the burnt-rubber smell of '60s self-righteousness spinning its wheels leaves one to conclude that his sniping at sitcoms in general and Seinfeld in particular has nothing to do with art. And hey, he's not to be trusted on popular music either. But without him I would never have gotten the dirt on James Jesus Angleton, discovered Mating, or had the chance to opine that Monnewis twice the formal achievement Beloved is. Really, who has the time? Somehow John Leonard does. Then he comes downstairs and tells us about it.
Of course, I didn't always agree with what he told us, but I wouldn't trust a critic I always agreed with (that's not a critic, it's a stalker). It didn't matter, really. I agreed enough to have discovered books and movies and political opinions I came to cherish (indeed, like Christgau, I discovered Mating via Leonard, and still think it's among the best novels I've ever read). Through his wide-ranging enthusiasms, I learned about Manhattan and Nicaragua and Africa long before my feet ever inched near those parts of the world. I discovered writers whose names I couldn't pronounce and books that hardly seemed written in English, but I always kept at these things because John Leonard had found something good in them.

Somewhere around ten years ago, I got a glorious Christmas present: a signed copy of Leonard's Private Lives in the Imperial City, a collection of short essays on daily life that he wrote for the New York Times. It's a book I cherish, and not just because he wrote his own name in it. It's full of wit and wonder, and it contains one essay, "A Victim of Surprises" that seems to me about as perfect as Virginia Woolf's "The Death of the Moth", but funnier:
Surprise! It was a birthday party, and we therefore behaved like trombones, and the victim was pleased, and the tears fell like dimes, and I looked at the ceiling, which is where I always look when the spy business takes me to the vital and dangerous Upper West Side of the imperial city. Such high ceilings they have on the Upper West Side, as if to accommodate eagles or bats. And yet the people who live under these high ceilings do not, on the whole, seem bigger than the people who live elsewhere in New York, perhaps because they eat so much Chinese food. Considering the housing shortage, maybe we should partition along the perpendicular, or turn all these old buildings on their ears. Turning them on their ears, of course, would block traffic, and that would be a good thing, too. Traffic frightens the eagles.
And then there are all the short reviews collected in his 1973 collection This Pen for Hire, in which he started with a quote from Nietzsche: "Insects sting not in malice, but because they want to live. It is the same with critics: they desire our blood, not our pain" and continued on to muse about the perils of the 800-word review:
Thus the book reviewer develops an 800-word mind, which comes in handy at literary cocktail parties and symposia on The Sclerosis of Modernism. One quarter of those words are adjectives. Anybody, stinging a book about the ears and ankles, can suck out enough ink to fill up three quarters of a column, but the professional book reviewer lives and dies by his repertoire of adjectives. ...

Not wanting to appear a jerk, the reviewer starts using adjectives like "solipsistic", "dodecahedral", and "prelapsarian". Unfortunately, out of the some 20,000 new books published each year in the United States -- of which a daily paper can review perhaps 450 -- only about three will be in any way solipsistic, dodecahedral, or prelapsarian. For that matter, only about two will be superb, compelling, explosive, or exquisite.
And then, twenty pages later, he gives us one of my favorite first-sentences to any review -- this one a review of Doris Lessing's The Four-Gated City--
On finishing this book, you want to go out and get drunk.
(Perhaps it was too much Lessing that led Leonard to AA.)

Once, I sent him a fan letter. I've hardly ever sent any fan letters in my life, not because I'm not a fan of many people and many things, but because when I gush I sound like a Valley Girl, and my dignity can only bear it occasionally. But at some point or another I felt the need to let John Leonard know that I was the lost child of his sentences. He never wrote back or signed the adoption papers, but I didn't necessarily want him to -- a fan letter is not an invitation to correspondance, but a proclamation of joy, and once I finished proclaiming, I'd done what I needed to do. I imagined him going to soirees and hanging out with the literati, with Don DeLillo on speed dial and Salman Rushdie hiding in his basement. I imagined he might be amused for a moment to learn that a kid in the middle of nowhere heard his voice crying out in the wilderness and found comfort and inspiration in it, and I imagined he would toss the letter away and chuckle for a moment and then go back to sharing a smoke with the latest Nobel winner (if he even read the letter himself; I imagined he had hordes of assistants). Though now, in my cynical old age, I know John Leonard's life was probably a bit more prosaic than I imagined when I was young, I still like the fantasy, and I hold onto it along with the atavisms and avatars, the Chaos Theory and fractals, the library and its dissidents. One of the dissidents has left, but, as a bit of consolation, we get to keep his books.

06 November 2008

Amazon's Best

It's so rare that I agree with lists of the best books of the year that I'm astounded to see Amazon.com picked two books I'm quite fond of as its top two science fiction/fantasy titles of the year: Brian Slattery's Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America and Jeff Ford's The Drowned Life (a book I'm hoping to write about in the next week or two). I may even like more than those top two, but I haven't had time to read any of the others.

Thus, this week various people I voted for actually won elections and a top-ten list was published that I don't hate. What is happening to me?! Why is the world trying to make me content?!!

04 November 2008

This Moment

I am always wary of making political statements here, and do it only occasionally, because I recognize that many of us differ in our perspectives and ideologies, and this is not primarily a political blog. I feel privileged to have friends and family members of very different political feelings, because they help me discover what I most cherish and believe.

I would regret staying silent at this moment in my country's history, because regardless of our personal political convictions, how could we not spend a moment to savor the fact that this country will now be led by a person of Barack Obama's background and heritage?

I do not believe this is a moment that will change the oppressions inherent in so much of this country's fabric. This is no revolution. As a politician, Obama is a moderate, and even if he weren't, there are limits to what a president can achieve (despite the attempts of the Bush administration to turn the government into even more of an oligarchy). I don't have a lot of hope that we'll be seeing great changes in our country's various policies -- economic, environmental, foreign, health -- but we may see some minor improvements, as well as new problems.

There are times, though, when a president can accomplish a lot simply through tone and tenor, and that's Obama's great strength. (And I don't just mean that it will be a relief to have a president who is capable of speaking in complete and coherent sentences.) The symbolic power of a man like Barack Obama becoming the President of the United States ... that power, tonight, leaves me speechless.

The thing we think of as "The United States" is, beyond its political and geographic reality, often a myth. The ideals that, from our first days in school and even earlier, we are taught are central to our nation are ideals that, as often as not, get violated by the actions of our leaders and our citizenry. But that's part of what makes them ideals, and I'm glad we teach them to kids, just as I'm glad we teach them about the times in our history when we have violated those ideals, because so long as the anger at that history doesn't calcify into cynicism, it helps fuel our desire to become better people in a better world.

And now we move away from the grotesque government of our past eight years. We bring a biracial man who grew up in a working class family into our presidency. His supporters project their hopes and dreams onto him while his detractors project their paranoias and prejudices and nightmares, but the supporters won this time, and they won decisively. Their dreams and hopes are not all the same, and some are likely as delusional as the worst delusions of the detractors, but we are daring to dream again of the myth of America, despite how ragged that myth has become, and we might -- we might -- now be able to harness some of the excitement of daring to dream again and use it to bring ourselves a few inches closer to the beautiful world our ideals point us toward.

30 October 2008

Murder Madness Mayhem

I'm teaching a section of a course next semester called "Murder, Madness, and Mayhem" at Plymouth State, and since a passionate minority of the readership here seems interested in my syllabi and the (so-called) thinking behind them, here are the texts I've settled on using:I don't entirely know what I'm doing with all these texts yet (the order was due at the bookstore last week, but the class won't begin till the end of January), but I chose them because I think they will illuminate different things about each other.

The only text that I've been settled on using since the moment I learned I'd be teaching a section of the class is The Dark Descent, an anthology I admire enormously for its generous selection of stories from all sorts of different traditions (contents listed here), and getting to explore it with students will be great fun.

The other books I chose bit by bit as I developed some focus for the course -- the course description I was given is pretty general, and the course goals are mostly just that the students will learn to write and read better, will develop some critical thinking skills, and will have some sort of interdisciplinary experience (the class is, like my current Outsider course, mostly for first-year students).

As with any class, my first step was to decide what to give up. For a while, I was thinking of including both Titus Andronicus and King Lear, but then I realized that, much as I might find the comparison scintillating, it was likely to be quite difficult to drag the students through two Shakespeare plays in one term -- I taught Shakespeare every year for 10 years in high school, sometimes with success and sometimes not, but it seemed like too much of a risk for this particular class, partly because I just don't know how to teach Shakespeare when the class doesn't meet every day, and the time and effort it would eat up could be used more productively, I thought, with other texts.

Next, I gave up on trying to represent the world. For a while, I kept things like Bolaño's By Night in Chile, Tanizaki's Seven Japanese Tales, and Zoe Wicomb's Playing in the Light on the possibles list, but they came off one by one for different reasons (Tanizaki because I wanted novels rather than more stories, Wicomb because I find the shifting viewpoints of the novel annoying and didn't really look forward to rereading it [and though I adore her You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town, I once included it in a class and it was just too subtle for the students to appreciate], the Bolaño because it requires a certain kind of readerly sophistication that I just don't know how to teach to kids who've just come from high school and, more often than not, don't like reading). I also wanted to include some plays by Euripedes and maybe John Webster, but then had to remind myself that it's not a course in dramatic lit.

Finally, I decided to let the course be about the intersections of murder, madness, and mayhem, and to take a particularly socio-political approach, one that might make it a bit less of a struggle for students who aren't English majors (few, if any of them, will be). Thus, a certain focus on war -- all of the texts other than The Dark Descent explore some aspect of war or combat.

Sarah Kane's Blasted, which is currently playing in New York (I'll be seeing it with Rick Bowes in a couple days, in fact), presents a brutal and hallucinatory version of war and its effects on people, while Chris Shinn's play Dying City offers a rich and subtle exploration of the Iraq war and the homefront. I thought that Blasted would make a bit more sense to students if they read a realistic account of the Bosnian war, and I thought about including a book of nonfiction (even Joe Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde or The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo), but settled on Drakulic's S. because though it has a certain documentary feel, it will still allow us to continue thinking and talking about how people respond to real horrors through fictional writing. Mother Night is a favorite of mine, a wonderful book to teach because its accessible surface lures students into thinking it is less complex than it is, and when they discover its complexities they tend to get excited by and passionate about the book. Daughters of the North and Liberation will be the final books, ones that get us talking about, I expect, how and why writers extrapolate from present trends, and if murder, madness, and mayhem must always be aligned during times of political crisis.

In amidst all this, I'll toss some essays and, I hope, a bunch of poems. We'll see. It's a tight schedule just with these books, and I could change my mind about a lot of things between now and the end of January...