What I Read in December

December 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

Still haven’t finished the Brody book. December, as usual, has been busy with other things.

Santa Monica Review, Fall 2011. I like the modest design of this journal, with its black and white cover and single centered illustration. It publishes only fiction and essays, which lends the volume a certain heft. Animals turn up a lot in this issue, as in Michael Cadnum’s “Slaughter,” a fictional piece that finds authenticity in its detail about a man working at a slaughterhouse. The rather gruesome descriptions of the slaughtering process can only come from a writer who has worked in a slaughterhouse or done the legwork to learn what it is like. Perhaps it is intended to be a document of awareness in the vein of Upton Sinclair, but without that writer’s capital letter-muckraking.

A number of the contributors are described in their bios as “longtime supporters” of SMR, which creates the impression that it has its cache of favored regulars. Glen David Gold (Carter Beats the Devil) ends with an address, titled “Despair,” that was delivered at the Squaw Valley Summer Writing Conference in 2010. The address includes a fascinating anecdote, one heretofore unknown to me: Aldous Huxley, desperate for money late in his career, was hired by UPA Studios to write a feature adaptation of Don Quixote starring Mr. Magoo. (The project was rescinded once UPA realized that Huxley a.) had no idea who Mr. Magoo was; and b.) could see a movie screen about as well as Magoo could.)

Short Lean Cuts, Alex M. Pruteanu. A novella with attitude about a burned-out ex-academic now working as house cleaner, narrated in the first person with clipped, biting sentences informed by Heideggerian nihilism.

We learn a lot about Heidegger, as well as house cleaning:

What I really do best is remove stains from carpets.

Damp cloth. Always use a damp cloth.

Blot it. Don’t rub the stain.

If you’ve ever cleaned a stain and had it reappear a day or two later, your carpet is suffering from wicking. This means the liquid has pooled at the bottom of the carpet. Even though you may have blotted up the initial stain, you only cleaned the surface. Eventually, the liquid works its way back up the fibers to the top of the carpet, causing it to look like the stain has reappeared. To prevent wicking, cover the area with a thick cloth and weigh down with books. Leave overnight and remove the stain by blotting.

Blot. Don’t rub. Did you get that?

For stubborn protein-based stains, like semen, try rinsing with cold salt water first. Then go about tidying up the usual way.

There is not a deep plot, but the story moves along nicely, particularly by way of exchanges with the protagonist’s case worker. Dark and bright at the same time, in the manner of Henry Miller or Chunk Palahniuk (with more than a couple nods to Fight Club).

The Normal School, Fall 2012. A film-and-music-themed issue celebrating the eclectic journal’s fifth anniversary, and an unexpected find in our local bookstore. The opening essay, by Ned Stuckey-French, adheres well to the argument in the introduction to this year’s Best American Essays, that the best essays do not place their weight on introspection; they do the work of laying out researched fact and developing insight from that fact in the aim to persuade and teach us something about the human condition. Stuckey-French’s essay, a defense of Elvis Presley as an innovator of twentieth-century rock ‘n roll, rather than as a purveyor of kitsch, is placed with deserving prominence at the front of the issue.

Stuckey-French counts off seven of the most common claims that critics use to dismiss Elvis from the conversation:

Elvis was dumb

Elvis was racist, or at least a tool of racists

Elvis was pathetic, not tragic

Elvis sold out

Elvis is not Sinatra, Dylan, or the Beatles (or alternately, he’s not Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, James Brown, or Little Richard)

Elvis is for girls (or its corollary: Elvis was sexist).

Elvis is not God.

As someone who admittedly does not treat Elvis as seriously as Dylan, Cash, or the Beatles (I do love that JXL remix of “A Little Less Conversation,” which Elvis purists probably find scandalous), and who happens to be acquainted with a female Elvis impersonator, I fall squarely into Stuckey-French’s intended audience. Arguments like this one leave me willing to be persuaded:

What concerned me more, however, was why my friends felt—why in part I still feel—the need to choose Elvis over the Beatles or Sinatra or Dylan. The choice is a false one. It is also unfair—unfair because it is based, often at least, on the assumption that there is but one Elvis—sequined jumpsuit Elvis—but many versions of the others. We parse those artists—preferring Rubber Soul to Revolver, rhapsodizing about the Capitol sessions, continuing to argue about the electrification at Newport in 1965.

The reason for this, I think, has to do once again with the belief that Elvis was passive and without irony—or, less kindly, that he was stupid or, at best, naïve. The others, we say, were not. … Elvis was a polite Christian boy, an only child from Tupelo; smark aleck wasn’t really what he did.

I hope this essay gets noticed when it is time to put together next year’s anthologies.

And so the final tally for 2012: 30 books read, not including literary journals & magazines (since I tend to skip around with those). Truman Capote (3 titles) was the only repeat author, and six books were by people I knew either in real life or virtually. For Best Book I Read This Year, I’m going to go with Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding (discussed here), with Jennifer Egan’s A Visit to the Goon Squad and Teju Cole’s Open City receiving the silver and bronze medals, respectively.

Happy New Year, everyone.

How to Write Posthumously

December 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

At The New Yorker’s Page Turner blog, the transcript of an address by Jeffrey Eugenides delivered to the recipients of the 2012 Whiting Award. By writing posthumously, of course, he means writing without the natural inclination to compromise one’s writing when people start paying too much attention to it. (Hasn’t been a problem for me, so far. But I wholly understand it.)

Your audience, as it grows, your need for a teaching job, the fact of being taken seriously and reviewed by people—all these things might lead you to over-analyze your words and censor them. As Adrienne Rich put it, “Lying is done with words and also with silence.”

To die your whole life. Despite the morbidity, I can’t think of a better definition of the writing life. There’s something about writing that demands a leave-taking, an abandonment of the world, paradoxically, in order to see it clearly. … The same constraints to writing well are also constraints to living fully. Not to be a slave to fashion or commerce, not to succumb to arid self-censorship, not to bow to popular opinion—what is all that but a description of the educated, enlightened life?

Coming shortly after this year’s ALCS, Eugenides repeats the words of a Detroit Tigers pitcher, Doug Fister: “Stay within yourself.” In other words, do not change your game in response to the expectations of an opponent, or the marketplace.

One of my problems is that I keep looking up at the top of the hole, where the daylight is, when I know the only way to get where I want to be is to keep digging.

Lunch With Poe

December 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Aside from the books, from friends B. & I. came this:

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Holiday on Ice

December 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

At NPR.org, a fascinating look at one country that does Christmas right:

Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country in the world, with five titles published for every 1,000 Icelanders. But what’s really unusual is the timing: Historically, a majority of books in Iceland are sold from late September to early November. It’s a national tradition, and it has a name: Jolabokaflod, or the “Christmas Book Flood.”

“The culture of giving books as presents is very deeply rooted in how families perceive Christmas as a holiday,” says Kristjan B. Jonasson, president of the Iceland Publishers Association. “Normally, we give the presents on the night of the 24th and people spend the night reading. In many ways, it’s the backbone of the publishing sector here in Iceland.”

What kind of books, exactly?

“Generally fiction and biographies would be the mainstays, although it varies a lot,” [researcher Baldur] Bjarnason says. “Two years ago one of the surprise best-sellers was a pictorial overview of the history of tractors in Iceland.”

That book, And Then Came Ferguson, wasn’t the only unusual breakout success. Another, Summerland: The Deceased Describe Their Death And Reunions In The Afterlife, came out last year. The book, by Gudmundur Kristinsson, an author in his 80s who believes he can talk to the dead, sold out completely before Christmas 2010 — and sold out yet again after being reprinted in February 2011.

Iceland lays claim to one Nobel laureate: Halldór Laxness (The Great Weaver from Kashmir; The Atom Station) in 1955.

Here in western Massachusetts we got a light snowfall on Christmas morning, and were it not for family visiting from out of town, the thought of a hushed day spent drinking coffee (or hot bourbon cider) and reading would have been delightful. But Santa supplements his good-willed omniscience with some clever Google stalking, apparently, as he brought me some wonderful surprises from my Amazon wish list: Karl Taro Greenfeld’s Triburbia; Dorothy Baker’s Young Man With a Horn; Nicholson Baker’s The Way the World Works (which you can also buy on Kindle, ironically, given that it includes Baker’s famous New Yorker piece trashing the then-new device); Object Lessons from The Paris Review; and James Wood’s The Fun Stuff.

The teenagers down the block, from the sounds of things, got new skateboards.

R.I.P. Jake Adam York

December 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

I did not know the poet Jake Adam York, but his name was one of those that seemed to be popping up everywhere of late, a sign that his best work lay ahead of him. His sudden passing yesterday at the age of 40 further darkens what was already a somber winter weekend.

He had just been awarded an NEA fellowship in November.

Here is one of his most recent poems, “Self-Portrait as Superman (Alternate Take),” from the New England Review.

The Millions’ Year in Reading: 2012

December 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

The 2012 edition of The Millions’ Year in Reading series is already in full swing. Among notable early contributors: Emma Straub, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Gideon Lewis-Kraus.

As editor C. Max Magee says:

Their charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era.

Reading these posts is a delightful exercise in serendipity and discovery. Quite often we don’t get a feel of a book as having special meaning until we have set it down and let it be absorbed into our blood. For every author sure to gush about an unrisky, popular title, say Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, there is one who might enlighten you to a long out-of-print collection of essays that the author found while visiting a sick relative and which today can only be found on Alibris.

It is also a joy to compare notes on books you’ve happened to have read yourself.

The main page can be found here, and it will be updated with links as the series gets updated, for easy maneuvering. I strongly recommend not falling too far behind, if you can help it. It is worth it to pace yourself.

Duotrope Goes Paid-Only

December 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

Duotrope announces that, as of January 1, 2013, their site will be accessible via paid subscription only.

For over seven years, Duotrope has tried to make ends meet by asking those who use the website or subscribe to our newsletter to contribute a small amount. Unfortunately, only about 10% of those who have used our services have ever contributed, and we haven’t met any of our monthly goals since 2007. Quite simply, we can no longer afford to run Duotrope this way.

None of this comes as much surprise, as the donation reports continually warned us that the site was in the red.

What is unfortunate, however, is that it appears only one pricing plan will be available: $60 for one year or $5 per month. (They are also offering gift certificates.) There is no bare-bones option (with just the submissions tracker, for example), nor do I think it is possible to pay in installments the way you can when you pledge to NPR. Perhaps that will change as the model adjusts.

A bigger question is how this will affect the statistics on the site. A paid-only model would seem likely to reduce the number of site users, and ideally the statistics are more accurate when the sample is larger. If the new model reduces the number of users who share their data, then the accuracy of the statistics is more likely to be compromised, and isn’t that part of the product we are being asked to pay for?

The administrators attempted to address this question in a Facebook post:

A note on our statistics: We at Duotrope are aware of how important our statistical data is to a large number of our users. We plan on carefully tracking the impact our new pay model has on this data, and we will continue to work at keeping the statistics relevant and useful. Based on our internal numbers and analysis of individual user statistics, we believe the accuracy of our data will actually improve in the long run. This was a significant factor when making the decision to go paid.

It will be interesting to see where this goes. As I have admitted before, I am a bit of a Duotrope addict (which has not helped my writing any, by the way). In the past I have contributed about $20 per year, on average, and I certainly will find a way to pay more if that’s what it takes.

Meanwhile, the admins are recommending that users who do not plan on subscribing by January 1 should back up their data by exporting it to Excel.

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