A Miscellanea of Catching Up and Checking In

Crickets have taken over The Mumpsimus recently, mostly because I've been working on some projects and have started the new school year.

This will be a fragmentary post trying to capture a few things that seem to me worth capturing before too much more time passes and I enter senescence.

After a hiatus due to some technical reconfigurations at Boomtron, The Sandman Mediations have now resumed with a few thoughts on the first part of The Wake. I'll finish up The Wake in the coming weeks, then continue with Endless Nights, after which I plan to stop.

I made one last video essay before classes started up again, this one on Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales. I'm hoping to make another on Eastwood's Gran Torino soon, but not sure when I'll be able to steal the time.

I watched Eastwood's recent performance of the minor, little-known Samuel Beckett play "Old Man and Chair". Not his best work — the pacing seemed a bit off — but sometimes amusing. I find Eastwood's career fascinating, and I think he's underrated as an actor and, especially, as a director (indeed, I underrated him myself for a long time). But he doesn't really have a flair for comedy, even the absurdist/existential comedy of Beckett. Still, I look forward to his upcoming performance as Hamm in Endgame.

[This led me to write a rambling bit about politics. You probably don't want to read it, since the last thing the world needs is more political rambling. In case you're an addict of such things, though, I've put it at the end of this post as an extra feature.]

Since finishing the considerable amount of reading required of judges for the Shirley Jackson Award, I have hardly been able to read any fiction. This happened to me after finishing with the Best American Fantasy books — I didn't read much, if any, short fiction for a year after Best American Fantasy 3. I've read some short stories since finishing with the Jacksons, but I haven't read all of a single novel, including even Samuel Delany's Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders (though having gotten about 400 pages into it, I've read more of it than any other novel in the last three months). I keep trying with novels, but those reading circuits are still pretty fried.

I've read a lot of nonfiction, though. Most of it for a big project I'm working on about the relationship between 1980s action movies and the Reagan presidency. I was going to list some of the best of them here, but there are so many (I at least skimmed well over 100 books between May and the first week of September) that I can hardly figure out where to begin. I'm getting more organized and focused, so will be able to talk about some of the best of what I've found soon. I can say, this, though: the first chapter of Nixonland by Rick Perlstein is some of the best narrative nonfiction I've ever read. The rest of the book is good, but that first chapter blew me away. (Perlstein's Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus also seems good, but I just started it.)

I pretty much devoured Tom Bissell's new essay collection Magic Hours. I have loved Bissell's essay on Werner Herzog ever since it was published in Harper's in 2006, but had missed most of the other essays in the book, and they're a real pleasure, full of surprises and insights and off-kilter beauty.

This week I've been dipping into an advance copy of Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story, which offers a healthy selection of stories chosen by other writers, with those writers penning introductory essays. All of the essays are short, many of them only a few paragraphs, but there are some gems of insight: Daniel Alarcón on Joy Williams's "Dimmer", Lydia Davis on Jane Bowles's "Emmy Moore's Journal", Dave Eggers on James Salters's "Bangkok", Jeffrey Eugenides on Denis Johnson's "Car Crash While Hitchhiking", Jonathan Lethem on Thomas Glynn's "Except for the Sickness I'm Quite Healthy Now. You Can Believe That.", Ben Marcus on Donald Barthelme's "Seven Garlic Tales", David Means on Raymond Carver's "Why Don't You Dance", Mona Simpson on Norman Rush's "Lying Presences". And the others, where the essays are more basic or prefatory, are still usually very interesting choices — Norman Rush chooses Guy Davenport's "Dinner at the Bank of England", for instance, and Joy Williams chooses a hilarious send-up of literary life and, especially, awards, Dallas Wiebe's "Night Flight to Stockholm", a story and author I was previously unfamiliar with. It's an excellent and surprising collection, limited primarily by being a collection of stories from a single journal (though one with a 50-year archive), so a certain uniformity crops up, but it is much less uniform than it would have been with all of the stories being chosen by one person. It would be a useful book for a writing class; indeed, I wish it had been available for the writing class I'm currently teaching.

The book I've least enjoyed over the last few months is one I looked at for that writing class I'm currently teaching, Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg. Fundamentally, my problem with the book was that I disagree with Klinkenborg's valoration of short sentences. (I am a besotted and hopeless lover of long sentences.) But I also loathed the book's layout and bristled at its tone, which struck my mind's ears as that of a supercilious old fart. There are some good ideas and advice about writing in it, but they're scattered and not particularly original. I wrote a draft of a long post about it, but realized it was pointless, because I really only wanted to say one short sentence about the book: I hated it.

I considered saying something about Paul Kincaid's interesting evisceration of a recent round of best-of-the-year anthologies, but then realized I don't care. The audience for those books is getting what it wants. The audience for more adventurous, wide-ranging, and surprising best-of-the-year books is currently too small to make the many expenses of such anthologies attractive to a publisher. Kincaid and I have somewhat different views of things, different priorities and tastes — my sense of exhaustion is closer to John Barth's than his — I'm nonetheless generally sympathetic to the feelings he expresses about those books, even if I couldn't possibly care less about whether elements of the fantastic are "necessary" to a story. So it goes and so it goes.

On the less exhausted front, Jeff VanderMeer just announced a special pre-order sale on three upcoming e-books from Cheeky FrawgDon’t Pay Bad for Bad & Other Stories by Amos Tutuola, Tainaron by Leena Krohn, and Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck. I wrote the afterword to the Tutuola, have reviewed Tainaron in the past, and am currently reading Jagannath. These are excellent books. I've been reading Jagannath very slowly, because each little story in it is a world. Most have impressed me deeply, and the first story is easily worth the price of the book alone. You can pre-order all three e-books for a total of $13 from Jeff at the first link in this paragraph.

That's it for now. Updates will likely be infrequent for the next few months, because deadlines loom for all sorts of things from here to December for me. Please play well with others.

I watched more of the Democratic National Performing Arts Spectacle than the Republican National Performing Arts Spectacle, mostly because the Republicans all seemed to be trying for some sort of deliberately awkward, postmodern Pat Buchanan-in-1992 imitation, and I'm with Molly Ivins on that sort of performance: it always sounds better in the original German. The Democrats were at least more pleasant to listen to. Bill Clinton was better than ever — it's exciting to watch someone as charismatic as he is, someone really at the top of his game, one of the best politicians alive. Okay, sure, he killed Ricky Ray Rector, he ushered in the sort of neoliberal welfare reform the Republicans had been trying to enact for years, he gave us Don't Ask/Don't Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act, he — well, why go on. We just love him.

Walter Kirn wrote a dryly funny short story for the New Republic about an unbelievably earnest and naive man who goes to the Democratic National Convention. It's not nearly as good as David Foster Wallace's "Girl with Curious Hair", but it clearly aspires to be of the same genre.

And yes, even though my ideology is vastly closer to Jill Stein (at least according to this quiz), I'll be voting for Obama. I live in a swing state. (I wish I lived in a punk state. Or at least a jazz state.) Back in 2000, I voted for Ralph Nader. I lived in a swing state then, too. So you're welcome: I gave you George W. Bush. Well, no, the Supreme Court gave you George W. Bush, but I did my part. Honestly, though, I wouldn't have voted if it weren't for Nader. Al Gore was a snorefest and Joe Lieberman was insufferable. I was young and hoped a third party of the left might sprout up if Nader got enough votes. Yeah, that was a stupid thought, but like many stupid thoughts I've had, I believed in it deeply.

I thought about those Nader-voting days again when I read Michael Hirsch & Jason Schulman's essay "Beyond November" in Jacobin. Their analysis of why a leftist 3rd party is pretty much impossible in the U.S. seemed mostly accurate to me, but their conclusion (vote for the impossible!) was less convincing. They argue that the AFL-CIO is being hyperbolic in saying the upcoming election offers a choice between two worldviews. True. But then they say: "The real subtext is 'Vote Obama: He’ll screw us less.'" As if that's a bad thing. I think it was Noam Chomsky who once advised something to the effect of: Vote for the lesser of two evils — you get less evil.

But you shouldn't expect to get no evil. So I'll vote for Obama, because I do like to hear nice things said about gay people and women people from the President, even if he's got an addiction to drone strikes and Goldman Sachs, and even if he's anything but a civil libertarian. The Supreme Court matters, too, because as generally boring and centrist as Sotomayor and Kagan are, I'll take them over Thomas, Alito, and Roberts in a heartbeat. Given how long the justices stay on the bench these days, a major legacy every president leaves is his Supreme Court picks. If Romney wins the Presidency, the Congress will probably get at least a few more Republicans, which means he could appoint his own version of Thomas, Alito, or Roberts, because there would be really no need to appoint a David Souter sort of independent thinker (especially given how hated Souter was by all of Romney's supporters and advisors). So, again: less evil.

My great hope, though, is that enough people will care about voting for Obama that they'll vote for local Democrats, particularly in my state, where we went from having a state government run by moderate and conservative Democrats (including a female-majority Senate) to having a Senate and House filled with sociopathic Tea Party conservatives. The last two years have been amusing to watch and painful to live — while we've gotten the fun spectacle of seeing Republicans try to pass a bullying bill aimed at their own leadership, we've also had the state's already tattered social safety net ripped apart, the public university system effectively privatized, and an attempted revocation of the marriage equality laws (a revocation the Republican gubernatorial candidate, social conservative Ovide Lamontagne, says he would happily sign). It's been a ghastly legislature, and the faster they are returned to the caves from whence they came, the better for the people of New Hampshire.

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