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 (The project was rescinded once UPA realized that Huxley a.) had no idea who Mr.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.

What I Read in November

December 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Best American Essays 2012, David Brooks, editor. Picked up in the same swoop as the BASS (covered below), and only because while browsing I happened to flip right to Geoffrey Bent’s essay, “Edward Hopper and the Geometry of Despair,” from Boulevard.

Hopper was perhaps my first “favorite” painter, as in the first one whose works I tried to train myself to recognize on sight, and who I regularly sought out whenever I was at a museum. I’m not sure what, in retrospect, struck me about them—the blurry, unreactive faces; the Gothamy scenes of boulevards unpopulated by traffic—but I suspect I may have found comfort and accessibility in their recognizable milieus: bars, drug stores, movie houses. Hopper places his subjects in scenes that invite interaction and then, like doll house figures, doesn’t let them interact. Bent devotes his essay to, among other things, the function of spatial composition in creating this effect of emotional isolation:

The architectural patterns in Hopper’s work do more than give it a compositional elegance; they confine the people that inhabit them. Hopper embeds his figures in a relentless grid of rectangles and squares. Bold vertical and horizontal lines slice away huge chunks of any scene. The artist’s men and women seem resigned to their compromised space, but not trapped by it; rather the grid is an outer expression of the attitudes they harbor within.

Bent’s essay ended up being my favorite piece in the collection. A lot of illness (mental and physical) and death runs through the rest of it. It sort of made me miss David Foster Wallace (who is eulogized as part of Jonathan Franzen’s essay “Carried Away”).

The Best American Short Stories 2012, Tom Perrotta, editor. Wasn’t there a time when the stories in the BASS collection were not always alphabetical by author? This is apparently the hard-and-fast rule now at Houghton Mifflin. Depending on your perspective, it either enhances the individual merits of each story or causes it to step on the toes of its arbitrarily assigned neighbor. Until these things are purchased on iTunes, there is something to be said for the identity of the complete product. (When Walter Mosley chose the stories in 2003, either he or some keen editorial assistant mischievously ordered them reverse-alphabetically by author.) I only bring this up because the order impacted my enjoyment of this year’s collection. Two of my favorite stories were the first two: Carol Anshaw’s “The Last Speaker of the Language” and Taylor Antrim’s “Pilgrim Life.”

It is gratifying to see so many small-press journals represented in these pages. There were quite a few stories I had read before, almost all from the New Yorker, and while some were a joy to reread (George Saunders’ “Tenth of December”), others made me wonder what I was missing. The collection gives us a heavy dose of perspective on adult-child relationships, many of them bunched by alphabetical serendipity at the end of the book—other than the Saunders, there is Mike Meginnis’s “Navigators,” Taiye Selasi’s “The Sex Lives of African Girls,” Sharon Solwitz’s “Alive,” and Kate Walbert’s “M & M World.”

Writing about children is tricky. Their restricted vocabularies and open sense of wonder at the banal make them too easy to turn into caricatures. There is also the problem of projection—the temptation to turn them into adults. You want them to live comfortably within their own logic, without being stupid.

In Meginnis’s story, a father and son (the boy is Joshua; the father is referred to as “his father,” placing Joshua as the moral center) spend their days almost exclusively playing an 80s-era NES video game, the kind that requires you to draw maps of the layouts. Given that video games operate on their own currency, they are not an easy thing to render in prose, but Meginnis pulls it off:

You always started outside the throne room no matter how much farther you explored. The hall outside was like a decayed palace, hung with rotting standards, walls collapsing, suits of armor disassembled and scattered over the floor, brown with rust. The stern guards at the door to the throne room were responsible for preventing the rot from coming inside, in addition to keeping you out. Of course, much of this was open to interpretation, rendered in simple arrangements of squares.

As the men dig deeper into the game, reality goes to seed: bills do not get paid, utilities get turned off. Dinner is microwaved grilled cheese. Shortcuts are arranged so the game can continue. The shadow of a long-lost mother, whom one presumes would not allow such things to happen, looms over the story.

I grew up playing games like the one Meginnis describes. He nails down the chief aspect to their allure—the chance to replace muddy, real-world problems with scripted problems that have clean, digital solutions. But I also knew of households with absent mothers, the kind that had CD-ROMs and hunting magazines stacked across the dining room table and cereal boxes spilled over on the living room carpet, and it is in these observances of decay out of the corners of Josh’s eyes, and the hesitation to speak up to the adult eschewing responsibility, that the story rang most true to me.

The Pinch, Fall 2011. One odd thing about this fine journal from the University of Memphis is that it is printed entirely on glossy stock, even the pages that are just text. I don’t know of many journals of this cut that do that. What I like about The Pinch is that it does not hold back on the visual art; there is a fine selection here, my favorites being a quartet by Margaret Morrison. I only wish the magazine told us the medium in which the original works were produced.

Popular culture runs as a heavy thread through the stories here. There are references to Evel Knievel, Silver Spoons, the models in Soloflex ads, comic books both real and fictional, Denzel Washington, and Mountain Dew. There is also a story in which Val Kilmer is a significant character, with a background and everything, including a father about to be married. I am not sure when the story is supposed to be set, but according to Pickaweedia, Kilmer’s actual father died while Kilmer was filming Tombstone (1993). It turns out that the actor, in the conceit of the story, “lives in Boise part-time” and hates baseball, which may or may not be really true. He befriends our protagonists as they help him look for a party. One of them calls him “Val Top-Gun-Weird-Science-I-am-Jim-Morrison Kilmer” even though Kilmer wasn’t in Weird Science, he was in Real Genius. I can’t tell if this is supposed to be the character’s mistake that makes him endearing, or if it’s a genuine, sloppy mistake on the part of the author (and the editor who never caught it). Such is the danger when you incorporate real-life personalities in your stories; how much is the reader supposed to suspend disbelief and let the fiction of the narrative not be affected by the facts of the players as we know them? (The only other prominent example I can think of is J.D. Salinger appearing as a character in Shoeless Joe.)

Aside from that, I am 1/4 of the way through Richard Brody’s extensive biography of Jean-Luc Godard, which I imagine I will write about next month.

Where Am I?

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