On Top of Fudge Mountain

September 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

In the centre of the room there was an actual mountain, a colossal jagged mountain as high as a five-storey building, and the whole thing was made of pale-brown, creamy, vanilla fudge. All the way up the sides of the mountain, hundreds of men were working away with picks and drills, hacking great hunks of fudge out of the mountainside; and some of them, those that were high up in dangerous places, were roped together for safety.

As the huge hunks of fudge were pried loose, they went tumbling and bouncing down the mountain, and when they reached the bottom they were picked up by cranes with grab-buckets, and the cranes dumped the fudge into open waggons – into an endless moving line of waggons (rather like smallish railway waggons) which carried the stuff away to the far end of the room and then through a hole in the wall.

“It’s all fudge!” Mr Wonka said grandly.

The Guardian unearths an unpublished chapter from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Some early differences: apparently there were originally more than five children touring the factory, and instead of Grandpa Joe, Charlie is accompanied by his mother.

What I Read in July and August, Plus a Wrap-Up of Updike and Rabbit

August 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

Updike, Adam Begley; Rabbit, Run, John Updike; Rabbit Redux, John Updike; Rabbit Is Rich, John Updike; Rabbit at Rest, John Updike. Even though I was reading it for the fourth time, and knew its plots and patterns inside-out and upside-down, and could even recite certain passages, it took me more than two months to get through John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy as I read it more or less side-by-side with Adam Begley’s biography of its author. I’m not sure what additional perspective I was expecting as I got to know the human Updike—the only child, much loved by his family, the eager Harvard student, the husband, the father, the swashbuckler among the Ipswich social set—who was behind their creation. It becomes apparent that Updike borrowed a great deal from his own life for his stories and novels, but the Rabbit books did not see a lot of this influence.

If there is a danger in re-reading a favorite book, I suppose it is that it opens up the possibility of it ceasing to be your favorite book. That didn’t happen to me. One thing I did notice that I hadn’t before was a pounding home of metaphor—for example, the comparison of Janice to a nut, her nut of a face, her nut-brown skin, aptly drawing from her job working the nut counter at Kroll’s department store, all of which not only emphasize Harry as a forager of women but foreshadow his deadly snacking habit (the first thing he buys in Rabbit at Rest is a Planter’s peanut bar; an old Mr. Peanut sign is transformed into the sign of a gentlemen’s club near the family car dealership). There is a lot in the last two books to remind readers of what happened in the first two, as though the only eventful things to occur to the Angstrom family do so at the end of each decade.

Begley takes a mostly linear tack for the biography, but throughout the project faced a challenge of access: while he had the cooperation of Updike’s first wife, Mary, and their children, he did not receive the same from Updike’s second wife, Martha, whom he married in September 1977, and who is portrayed, somewhat dubiously, as a possessive adoring fan-turned-homewrecker (“conspicuously purposeful, unhesitatingly vocal, and perfectly willing to bully John for his own good”). As a result, the book is weighted unevenly toward the years in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where Updike lived through his late twenties and early thirties with Mary and the kids; I used to work in Ipswich and have walked past the boarding house at 26 East Street where he wrote Rabbit, Run. The Updikes made friends with a number of other rising, politically active Ipswich couples, and John and Mary turned out to be as freewheeling as they were. Tennis and volleyball and beachcombing give way to middle-class disaffection and a reticulated array of affairs. It becomes apparent that Updike wrote so easily from the mind and sentiments of a philanderer because he was one himself.

In fact, Updike used his fiction to sublimate his grievances and internally manage crisis. Almost anything that he observed, or happened to him, or any person he met—even children—went into his books. Ipswich, of course, became Tarbox, the setting of Couples (1968), and much of the human scenery and its anecdotes were borrowed for the narrative. Seven years later, after he and Mary had separated due to his infidelities, Updike wrote one of my favorite of his lesser-known books, A Month of Sundays (1975), the first novel of his so-called Scarlett Letter trilogy and a book that goes out of its way to reconcile the author’s desire for forgiveness with a distinctly Protestant lack of apology.

Updike returns to Rabbit at the end of each decade, the character’s point of view a lens through which to interpret headlines and zeitgeists and the fattened, energy-starved, increasingly addicted American electorate. Each book, appropriately, gets fatter and slower as they go, and both hero and author try to comprehend more as the world starts to go faster, even pre-Internet. The books assess America in elements of consumption: food, gasoline, drugs, sex, and the medicine to sustain all of its effects. With Harry’s role in the drowning of his infant daughter in the first book hanging over him, he develops an antagonistic relationship with his son, Nelson. His wife, Janice, transforms from a housebound pregnant child watching The Mickey Mouse Club, drinking old-fashioneds and fearing her mother to a wise-on-her-feet real estate broker. In the final book, Rabbit marches as Uncle Sam in a Fourth of July parade, and then, only some hundred pages later, sits in the judgment of a visiting Japanese Toyota executive befuddled by discrepancies in the company books and Americans’ racing impulsiveness.

There is so much death in the fourth volume, starting with an ominous reminder of the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland, and so much rage in the second, as Rabbit allows a spoiled teenage hippie and a button-pushing black nationalist into his home to challenge his assumptions of privilege. Which is why Rabbit Is Rich feels like the pleasantest of the four books, the most slaphappily ridiculous, as Updike allows his characters to bounce around free of consequence, emotional or financial, against a tense news setting of gas shortages and hostage negotiations:

Crowded together in the cubicle, he and Janice keep bumping into each other, and he scents rising from her for the first time a doubt that he has led them well in this new inflated world; or perhaps the doubt he scents arises from him. But there can be no turning back. They transfer silver dollars from the boxes to the bag. When the silver clinks loudly, Janice winces and says, “Shh.”

“Why? Who’ll hear?”

“The people out there. The tellers.”

“What do they care?”

“I care,” Janice says. “It’s stifling in here.” She takes off her sheepskin coat and in the absence of a hook to hang it on drops it folded to the floor. He takes off his black overcoat and drops it on top. Sweat of exertion has made her hair springier; her bangs have curled back to reveal that high glossy forehead that is so much her, now and twenty years ago, that he kisses it, tasting salt. He wonders if people have ever screwed in these cubicles and imagines that a vault would be a nice place, one of those primped-up young tellers and a lecherous old mortgage officer, put the time-lock on to dawn and ball away. Janice feeds stacks of coins into the coarse gray pouch furtively, suppressing the clink. “This is so embarrassing,” she says, “suppose one of those ladies comes in,” as if the silver is naked flesh; and not for the first time in twenty-three years he feels a furtive rush of loving her, caught with him as she is in the tight places life affords.

There is a lot of Updike I have yet to read, including The Centaur and Marry Me and the spacier stuff like The Coup and Brazil. His short stories, which I have read (at least those in The Early Stories) are perhaps a more suitable barometer to measure the concerns that dotted the timeline of his life. And we haven’t even cracked mention of his criticism. He published four block-thick volumes of the stuff, plus two books of art essays, enough to put to bed any suggestion that the author was too busy gazing at America’s suburban navel to not understand the grander cultural context in which he participated.

Bad Marie, Marcy Dermansky. I knew the author virtually via Fictionaut, where she had posted an excerpt of this novel. It presents an interesting challenge in that the protagonist is a convicted ex-felon, with no real motivation to improve herself, and a wish right off the bat to steal her employer’s (and former friend’s) husband, yet Dermansky gives Marie enough redeeming qualities to encourage the reader to invest in her journey. She reminded me somewhat of the narrator in Iris Owens’ After Claude.

Even before I read the author interview at the end of the book, where she admitted as much, I could definitely sense a Nouvelle Vague-cinematic influence at work in the narrative, not only in the starkness of tone but the simplicity of arrangement—we meet only six significant characters—and, naturally, much of the book is set in Paris. One of those six characters is Marie’s charge, a young child, too young for her words to tip the plot with any weight, but she holds a magnetic orbit around Marie as the one person Marie loves more than herself and therefore cannot sacrifice. As the relationship with the husband disintegrates, Marie is left to fend for herself with the little girl as her past closes in around her. But since we are never really hinted throughout the book toward the unresolved conflicts regarding Marie’s criminal past, they don’t ring true when they resurface, leaving the book’s tensions somewhat unbalanced.

Pinocchio, Carlo Collodi. I haven’t cultivated enough of an acquaintance with fairy tales. But in thinking about fathers and sons, the relationship between Geppetto and Pinocchio struck me as a literary example that must have stood the test of time, and this NYRB Classic translation by Geoffrey Brock presented me with the opportunity to find out. Plus I was curious to see how much the original story differed from its cinematic retellings. It includes an introduction by Umberto Eco and a comprehensive afterword by Rebecca West.

Although the story was intended for children, Collodi was not afraid to insert horrifying elements into the narrative, ostensibly to create a tale that could frighten away a young reader’s itch to misbehave. Pinocchio gets his feet burned off after he sleeps too close to a brazier full of hot coals. The Talking Cricket, twisted in an entirely wrong direction by Disney, is killed when the embittered boy has enough of his sober advice and throws a boot at him. A blackbird that tries to persuade him not to fall for a Cat’s scheme is quickly swallowed by the Cat. Pinocchio and a school chum are kidnapped, cursed, turned into donkeys and made to perform in a circus. And even though it is his penchant for lying that gets the most play in the film and his legend, it could be argued that Pinocchio’s greatest crime is one of trust. On seemingly every page he encounters some stranger who wants to separate him from his money or distract him from his objective, and because he has not been taught discipline, or the notion that he can be just as easily lied to, he falls into their debt and loses that which he has been tasked to protect.

In the afterword, West reveals that Pinocchio was supposed to have died at the end, hanged at the end of Chapter 15. It took pleading from Collodi’s editor (of Giornale i per bambini, the children’s magazine publishing the series) to persuade the author to resurrect the character. Pinocchio does seem to survive assaults in some of the most unlikely ways, as though made of cartoon plasma. We don’t hear enough about Geppetto; he is absent from much of the story almost until he’s ready to be swallowed by the fish. It is no wonder Disney wanted to get their hands on Pinocchio; it meshes perfectly with the company’s dreamy legacy of pairing children with quasi-parental guardians who, with an amiable paucity of investment, let their charges slip away from the shackles of conscientiousness.

The Authors in the Middle Respond

August 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

Amaz-Hachette

On pages A8 and A9 of the New York Times today is a two-page letter, signed by over 900 authors, condemning Amazon for its recent strong-arm tactics against Hachette and its harmful targeting of the Hachette authors who, as a result, find their books disadvantageously priced or else entirely unavailable through the online retailer.

The letter was written by one such affected author, Douglas Preston (The Codex), and signed by such writers as John Grisham, Stephen King, Nora Roberts, Jennifer Egan, and Valerie Plame under the moniker of an organization called Authors United. Taking out the ad space for the letter cost $104,000.

“As writers—most of us not published by Hachette—we feel strongly that no bookseller should block the sale of books or otherwise prevent or discourage customers from ordering or receiving the books they want,” it reads.

Later on, it says: “Without taking sides on the contractual dispute between Hachette and Amazon, we encourage Amazon in the strongest possible terms to stop harming the livelihood of the authors on whom it has built its business.”

The letter then encourages readers to contact Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos with their opinions on the matter.

If there were any impressions that Amazon, with its sweet discounts and undeniable convenience, was ever meant to be a friend to the publishing industry, they may have been dashed for good by George Packer’s article in the February 17, 2014 New Yorker, where he writes:

It wasn’t a love of books that led [Bezos] to start an online bookstore. “It was totally based on the property of books as a product,” Shel Kaphan, Bezos’s former deputy, says. Books are easy to ship and hard to break, and there was a major distribution warehouse in Oregon. Crucially, there are far too many books, in and out of print, to sell even a fraction of them at a physical store. The vast selection made possible by the Internet gave Amazon its initial advantage, and a wedge into selling everything else. For Bezos to have seen a bookstore as a means to world domination at the beginning of the Internet age, when there was already a crisis of confidence in the publishing world, in a country not known for its book-crazy public, was a stroke of business genius.

So Familiar and So Startling

July 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

Roger Angell, 93 years old, New Yorker fixture, former fiction editor for the magazine and the son of Katharine White, stepson of E. B. White, will be awarded the J. G. Taylor Spink Award for writers during induction ceremonies at the Baseball Hall of Fame this weekend.

When he accepted the award Saturday at Doubleday Field, Angell said that he collected “.300 lifetime talkers like a billionaire hunting down Cézannes and Matisses”— loquacious folks like Keith Hernandez, Roger Craig, Bill Rigney and Dan Quisenberry. And he gave his thanks to baseball, “which has turned out to be so familiar and so startling, so spacious and so exacting, and so easy looking and so heartbreakingly difficult that it filled my notebooks in a rush.”

As Joe Bonomo writes:

“…Angell’s best writing about baseball is always simultaneously the best writing about living, because he writes with passion, intelligence, economy, and humanity, and because, as in all great writing, his narrow subjects naturally give way his larger subjects. Angell shows us, again and again, how our loves, small or great, full of heartbreaks, disappointments, and diminishing returns, take many shapes. Angell’s is diamond-shaped.”

Angell’s best writing didn’t profile players in their prime, but when they faced crossroads—such as Steve Blass, who completely lost the ability to throw strikes in 1973, and David Cone, the veteran pitcher who was trying to keep his career alive with the Red Sox after a baffling season of terrible luck with the Yankees in 2000. That article, “Before the Fall,” was expanded into a book, A Pitcher’s Story:

He’d been smoking more. I almost never saw him light up, even when he was at home, but Lynn said he’d stopped inviting me to drive up to the Stadium with him or back home after a game, as he sometimes had, because he smoked in the car and didn’t want me to know. When I asked how many cigarettes a day he smoked, he said more lately but less than a pack. Lynn said he was way up over that by now. Cone did tell me that his doctor, John Olichney, had recently prescribed Zyban, a mild antidepressant that would help you get off nicotine when you were ready. One of its side effects was powerful dreams, and in August David said that only the night before he’d found himself pitching for the Red Sox, in a dream. It was all perfectly clear—the green wall behind him and the red letters on the uniform. “It wouldn’t be bad there, at that,” he said musingly. “That would be a change—pitching with those fans on my side. And I like Jimy Williams as a manager. I’ve always wondered what living in New England would be like…”

The New Yorker has opened up its archives, but since I can’t get the link to work, here’s a post with links to some of Angell’s featured baseball writing, and an earlier one from David Remnick made after Angell’s induction was announced.

Writing Blog Tour

July 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

So my troublemaking friend Adrienne Nunez went and tagged me in this writing blog tour thing where I’m supposed to talk about my writing process and what kind of things I am working on at the moment and it is nerve-wracking because I don’t know any of the answers because I didn’t study because I didn’t know there was going to be a quiz. But since I’m going to be a famous astronaut I don’t see why I should care about my GPA, so here goes nothing.

What am I working on?

Short stories are pretty much the only thing I write. For what little chance I have had to write this summer, I have been trying to revisit a couple of pieces that need work in order to get them ready for submission by fall. Two of them are stories that I workshopped in the Barrelhouse Online Fiction Workshop last summer.

Once in a while I entertain thoughts of writing a novel. They don’t entertain me back. If I do write a novel, I suspect it will be about a father and a son, because fathers and sons have been on my mind lately and I think there are a lot of fathers out there who need to have their stories told.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

It’s awesome, obviously.

More seriously: I don’t know. Is it really a writer’s job to know? If you worry from the beginning what your work achieves that others’ work does not, it cripples you rather quickly, I suspect. If there is anything distinctive, I guess I try to bring a little humor to the darker side of things, and bring the reader safely through a journey of the confusing and the heartbreaking and the absurd.

Why do I write what I do?

I have asked this question to myself, wondering if there are any overarching themes to my work, something emerging that would unify my stories were I to arrange them into a collection. What interests me about these people? Most of them are lonely to some degree. They are trying to figure themselves out, where they fit. They haven’t caught on to the rules of society and perhaps are prone to embarrassing themselves a bit, for better or for worse. And I particularly think about people and the disparities between how they perceive themselves and how others perceive them.

How does my writing process work? 

When you work full-time you have to scrape to find any useful time to write, and the lack of a set schedule makes it difficult. You cannot just sit down at the computer and expect to focus off the bat and pick up from where you left off. On good days I might come up with material during my idle time—in the shower, during the commute on Interstate 91—and hopefully write it down when I get the chance and bring it back to the computer later. This is also useful when I need to break out of the framework of a story, not let its logical progressions dictate the scenes I want to write. Sometimes the scenes that work best are scenes that hadn’t been part of the plan.

Did I bore you with all this? 

Nah. I just hope my responses weren’t boring, either. It’s tough to worry about such things when you’re training to be an astronaut.

Stymied

July 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

Stymie Magazine announces that it will cease publishing new content.

The magazine has seen itself featured in places like ESPN The Magazine, The Writer, The Classical and others. We published a trading card series. Stymie tried to break new ground or at least introduce people to the notion that literature and sports could intersect in a serious way.

Sports and literature go hand in hand in many ways—the loneliness of mission, the need for completion, the impact of moments—and Stymie did a lot of innovative things in the name of stretching the subject of the sporting life and creating literature out of it. I’m sorry to see it go, but I feel fortunate I was able to get my own small contribution in just under the wire.

What I Read in May and June That Wasn’t By or About John Updike

June 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

[As promised, I've been working through the Rabbit books again alongside the Begley biography, which I just finished. I am halfway through Rabbit Is Rich. A separate post devoted exclusively to that project will be coming later.-N.]

Freight, Mel Bosworth. I’ve gotten to know the author a little bit since coming across his writing in fwriction : review and other places. Freight, published in 2007, comes with a bit of a twist: submitted in pieces, the novel is designed to be read either in usual linear fashion or by skipping around according to the directions shown in the sidebar (e.g., “>>>PG 158 She pretended to sleep…”), a multi-pathed approach likened to a kind of leaping across text platforms via hyperlinks.

Since this was my first time reading the book, I opted to adhere to the linear format. It is about a young, nameless man who carries a lot of emotional baggage, as implied by the title. We learn early on about a young woman with whom our hero feel an obvious attachment, but who has slipped from his grasp. We hear anecdotes and reflections about bad behavior and regret colored by a yearning for connection. The musings of the lonely protagonist are patient and even, like those of a man who has spent a lot of time thinking about what to say before he writes it down:

All those years I put down a lot of alcohol a lot happened. A lot of friends grew sick. Some died. Others collapsed into themselves like dying stars that weren’t quite dead. And dying stars have a lot of gravity when they collapse because they grow dense. They pull us close. Sometimes it’s hard to get away from them. And even if we do get away from them, the gravitational pull messes up our lives. It messes up my life. Because they’re still in it. Because I’m carrying them even though I put them down. I think nothing ever goes away and nothing ever dies.

Because everything we carry touches everything we touch. Every word and every glance has weight. It’s all part of our gravity. It’s all part of our freight.

The False Inspector Dew, Peter Lovesey. As written about here, I had a flashback to my childhood when I saw this book lying on the bargain table at my local bookshop. I don’t read many mysteries anymore, so I was, perhaps, a little more cautious with this one than I would any other novel, knowing that a reveal was on the way, a mental antenna raised to the logic and evidential details.

The novel, set in 1921, begins with a love triangle: the young Alma Webster, her dentist Walter Baranov, and Walter’s wife, Lydia, who is about to leave him to pursue a career in Hollywood (she believes she has an in with Charlie Chaplin). They plot to murder Lydia while she is sailing across the Atlantic on the Cunard vessel Mauretania. To do so, Walter takes on a false identity, that of the Scotland Yard police inspector Walter Dew, who earned renown for cracking an earlier case relating to the sinking of another Cunard vessel, the Lusitania. (This choice of persona seems the biggest stretch of the book—wouldn’t someone seeking to commit a murder prefer to lay low?)

While on board, a real murder—not the one Walter planned—takes place, and a woman’s body is seen being tossed overboard. Since the legendary detective Walter Dew, now retired, just happens to be among the passengers, he is brought in to investigate and restore order.

Cruise ships, I suppose, make ideal settings for murder mysteries since the contained space places a cap on the number of possible suspects. And, in theory, those suspects—here a cast of card sharps and newlyweds—can’t get away. The False Inspector Dew doesn’t waste time on false leads and trickery. The brisk, comic narrative is less about bringing a killer to justice and more about the farce of Walter keeping up his charade. Toward that end, it wasn’t a bad read.

Incidentally, the Mauretania was a real ship, retired from service in 1934 and scrapped the following year. In addition to Dew, it was also the setting for Clive Cussler’s The Thief.

Fun Camp, Gabe Durham. A book that almost never happened, Fun Camp was originally to be published by MudLuscious Press before that press folded in 2012. Thankfully, Publishing Genius, out of Baltimore, swooped in and grabbed the rights of this fun and quirky book. I read it in one afternoon on Memorial Day weekend.

Summer camp stories were a staple of my reading as a kid, particularly Joel Schwartz’s Upchuck Summer (written by a psychiatrist) and Gordon Korman’s I Want to Go Home! (which I recall making me laugh out loud; incidentally, it is strange that the unhappy protagonist in Korman’s book has the same name, Rudy, as the loner kid opposite Bill Murray in Meatballs). The worst I had to do was a YMCA-affiliated day camp for two weeks when I was nine. We spent part of it raising money for the camp, earning pledges for how many laps we could swim, even though it was something our parents were already paying for. I came away with no idea still how to swim.

Camp stories makes for good narrative because they’re a setting where young people are left to figure out their own rules, how they fit in, and work out their own terms for happiness. But Fun Camp is not just about children; its vignettish format jumps around to include Head Counsellors Dave and Holly, letter-writer Billy, Chefs Grogg and Puddy and Marimba, and skeevy Tad Gunnick. With only glancing allusions and insider correspondences, Durham is able to draw a full picture of this community of individuals abiding by their own governance.

Booth #6. Purchased to read my friend Daniel Hales’s superb novel excerpt Run Story, already previewed here. This issue picks up where number 5 left off, doubling down on Booth’s apparent preference for emotionally damaged characters coping with their limitations in the face of uncooperative scenarios. Ian Golding’s “In the Essence of the Gourd” imagines Charlie Brown and Linus from Peanuts as older men living in poverty, busking in the streets by means of performances drawing from their once-thriving TV special careers. It’s a story loaded with ironic tricks, not because of the cynicism of these once-precious, optimistic characters (from the Great Pumpkin to Lucy’s football to the kite-eating tree, Peanuts is full of lessons regarding cynicism in the face of adversity), but because the of the new, strident level of desperation at which Golding has placed them, removed from the security of backyards and schoolrooms:

Linus stared at his army fatigues and shook his head in disappointment. He’d always hated You’re Not the Only Charlie, Charlie Brown.

“Now, for the last time, we’re Vietnam vets and the Man let us down. I saw kids getting sprayed in machine-gun fire. Kids, man. Kids.”

“What about me?” Linus said, his blanket dragging on the sidewalk, his stomach growling. It was the first time he’d left the Great Pumpkin and Boot Face alone. It was weird.

“You breathed in enough Agent Orange to shrivel your voice box, and now you can’t say a peep about pumpkins,” Charlie said, ruffling up his hair. “But show some emotion.”

The issue also includes “How I Came to Work at Wendy’s,” a sweetly somber graphic fiction by Nick St. John, and the prize-winning “Real Family” by Lenore Myka.

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