Objection Lesson

September 27, 2013 § Leave a comment

Banned Books Week ends tomorrow, and this year I didn’t celebrate by reading Tropic of Cancer or Lolita like I’ve done in the past, only because my nightstand stack is already too high and I didn’t feel like switching gears.

Other than sparking an important annual discussion about censorship and free expression, and giving booksellers a marketing hook for their backlists, what does a week celebrating banned books accomplish now? Most of the time, people who object to a book nowadays know they aren’t going to see it banned. Most objectors only think that going public with their disgust is somehow a revolutionary act that will stand even with that performed by the person who wrote the book. All that does is point out how little the objectors know about how revolution works.

People want to make news and be heard. This is why we still keep hearing about school boards removing books from school libraries because they contain elements so ubiquitous in other media: sex scenes, witchcraft, heresy, or, God forbid, people comfortable in gay relationships. Interest in the book rises and kids who never planned to read it to begin with go scope it out on Amazon. Then the objector gets mocked, and in some cases, such as this week in North Carolina, the board relents and its members cover their asses after being embarrassed. But people still want to make news and be heard, so the cycle continues year after year.

There is an echo of Internet spoilage here. The objector is analogous to the commenter who thinks his or her dashed-off trolling somehow leverages off the more carefully composed work they are disparaging. It speaks to a gross distrust of readers young and old not to make their own fair critical assessments, but then the objectors are never forced to own to that. Free speech only works when it polices itself. It is a vital tool for knowing who the assholes are in this world.

The New Yorker’s New Look

September 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

South Hero 104Two weeks in and I’m liking the new design. I like the selective way it was imparted, only in those sections that needed a little breaking up. The Table of Contents had always bugged me with its floating italic names, and while some of the initial web reaction seems to take umbrage with the inclusion of more photography in the About Town section, I think it gives a browser something new and interesting to look at that wasn’t there before. The written descriptions of the artists featured in the galleries around the city only told you so much.

I think the change I like the most is the graphical representation of the title of the short fiction, now integrated with the photographic image on the facing page. It gives the art department a chance to have a little fun, and would seem to solve the problem of awkwardly longish or punctuated titles that didn’t take well to the  magazine’s classic house font (e.g., “The Semplica-Girl Diaries”).

As New York Magazine wryly notes, “Apparently the diaeresis lives on, so readers will be able to comprehend words like “coöperate” and “reëlect” without turning to Google.” I assume the same fate awaits the acute accent in “début” and “élitist.”

The Same Rainbow’s End

September 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

Tonight’s Final Jeopardy!:

Classic Films
The first scene of this movie was shot on the first day of filming, October 2, 1960 at 5 A.M. at 727 5th Avenue at 57th Street in New York City.

A: What is Breakfast at Tiffany’s?

I own the film on DVD, and perhaps the most remarkable thing about the scene is how empty the streets are when the taxi carrying Holly Golightly pulls up. I haven’t checked my copy, but I believe there’s an interview with Blake Edwards in the extras in which he says that the lack of traffic was an uncanny stroke of luck. Edwards’ widow Julie Andrews confirmed as much at a celebration of the film’s 50th anniversary in 2011:

She said that in filming Tiffanys, [sic] Edwards said he had an amazing stroke of luck. He shot the iconic opening sequence of Hepburn staring in the window of the legendary jewelry store shortly after dawn in the hopes of getting a key scene without any traffic- a feat that would have been impossible even in 1961. Nevertheless, the minute the cameras started rolling the traffic disappeared for a couple of crucial minutes, allowing him to get the shot he needed.

I am fond of both the book and film, though they don’t belong in the same conversation. Turning Capote’s unnamed first-person narrator (we only know him as “Fred” because he reminds Holly of her deceased brother) into George Peppard’s dashing leading man, with the made-up character name Paul Varjak, shifts the focus from dreamy writerly obsession to a more standard formula of man’s pursuit of woman and his dismay at her complicated past.

She kept her promise to Mr. Yunioshi; or I assume she did not ring his bell again, for in the next days she started ringing mine, sometimes at two in the morning, three and four: she had no qualms at what hour she got me out of bed to push the buzzer that released the downstairs door. As I had few friends, and none who would come around so late, I always knew that it was her. But on the first occasions of its happening, I went to my door, half-expecting bad news, a telegram; and Miss Golightly would call up: “Sorry, darling—I forgot my key.”

Though I like the gag of Huckleberry Hound getting a sort-of cameo in the mask shoplifting scene, coyly alluding back to the theme song’s lyric.

To Engage Change

September 8, 2013 § 1 Comment

At Farrar Strauss Giroux’s Work in Progress blog (via Matt Bell), author Nelly Reifler (Elect H. Mouse State Judge) on her disdain for neat endings:

We writers have the urge to wrap up our stories, to provide our characters, ourselves and our readers with a sense of completion. For a while I had trouble ending my stories because I thought that I needed to somehow contain or recap everything that had unfolded in the preceding pages; I thought an ending had to be the end. It was befuddling for me. I hoped that in my fiction I was talking about the awkward, ineffable, eerie, and unresolvable aspects of life, and coming to a conclusion felt contradictory to what I understood as fiction’s purpose. It felt like lying.

To my mind, a story’s ending ought to acknowledge the ever-moving quality of life; that is, I want it to engage change rather than finality. Your final word and the void following it on the page are as close as you’ll get to conclusion. The best endings to stories have a sense of hovering in space and time; even a dark ending can be uplifting, exhilarating, as long as it seems to hover in space and time — because then it reflects life to us as it is: unresolved, eternally unresolvable.

One of the lessons I took away from the Barrelhouse workshop is that a story should be a journey—it should take the protagonist (and reader) to a situation different from where they started. There needs to be something important at stake for this to happen—you can’t just have a character quit a job or end a relationship when they can then just as easily go back to the starting space in either circumstance. But it is also naïve to think that there will not be ramifications to the decisions made during the course of the story after the story has ended. It is still a challenge I face as I confront my parking lot problem in my own writing.

What I Read in August

September 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

Booth #5. I already wrote about my two favorite stories from this issue, Matthew Baker’s “Tête-á-Tête” and Andrew Hudgins’ “Raymond Snow,” here. “Raymond Snow” is a part of a series called “Winesburg, Indiana,” that also includes stories by Michael Martone, Claire Vaye Watkins, Lee Marvin, and Porter Shreve. There is also an enlightening series of mini-essays called “How I Write” by Chris Offutt, Kim Addonizio, Pam Houston, Josh Neufeld, Katharine Rauk, and Matt Bell, as well as interviews with Chuck Klosterman and Charles Simic. Most importantly, the front and back covers feature an awesome painting, by Kevin Cyr, of a graffitied ‘80s-era GMC Vandura, by far the best cover I have seen on a literary journal, ever.

Fierce Attachments, Vivian Gornick. I came very close to throwing this book away before I read it, and I probably still will. But it’s not a bad book. It sat in a box of books I meant to give away for a long time (I received it as a giveaway long ago at my old bookstore job), and in that time it got mangled and twisted, but it seemed like a straightforward read, and after enjoying Renata Adler’s Speedboat, I guess I’m on kind of a kick for books about women making their livings as journalists in New York City.

Fierce Attachments is a memoir about Gornick’s growing up in Bronx tenements with her mercurial mother, with whom she has a challenging but loving relationship. There is also an unstable but influential neighbor who takes to a life of prostitution after her husband is killed at war. The second half of the book chronicles Gornick’s relationships with three different men in her twenties and thirties. It is admirable that the male characters in the book don’t provide its fulcrum, but it is strange how they seem to appear with some resistance on the part of the author—we don’t even realize that Gornick’s father has been living with the family until he dies, her brother is a nonentity, and we don’t meet her first husband until they are getting married in her mother’s living room. The tension arises as the teenage Gornick matures into an educated, well-spoken independent adult woman opposite a mother and neighbor who each fell into roles as young widows that, in disparate ways, dictated their later paths.

I am chronically suspicious of memoir, particularly as writers like David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs have made careers out of managing storehouses of impossibly acute micro-memories, all wax-sealed with the bonus points of having (supposedly) legitimately happened. And though I didn’t find this out until after I finished the book, Gornick apparently received criticism after some of the content of Fierce Attachments was revealed to be less than true:

Gornick admitted she had “composed” some of the walks and conversations with her mother in the memoir, and had also invented a scene that involved a street person and her mother. She said this matter-of-factly, and said she considered memoir to be in the genre of “personal narrative,” not journalism.

I can’t say this surprises me, and not because the conversations felt “staged,” but they were so impossibly specific in their line-by-line detail, and in their swift, convenient narrative propulsion. I cannot remember much about the conversations I had yesterday, though I suspect they involved a lot of roundabout talking, tacit nods, and irrelevant digressions. Which is why when I read an author’s remembered take on something from the past, whether recent or long ago, I automatically have to think some adjustment for the reader has taken place. It has to be, or else every other writer in the world is leading a much richer and more interesting life, one more worthy of acute observation, than I am.

One More Year, Sana Krasikov. A blurb on the back of One More Year calls Krasikov “as good as Junot Diaz and Jhumpa Lahiri were at this stage of their careers,” and the obvious tie to those two writers manifests itself in the mixed-American immigrant experience, with most characters originating from the Ukraine (where Krasikov was born) or Soviet Georgia (where she grew up) and now making new urban identities for themselves in the United States. There are the same imperfectly rounded speech patterns; there is the same incongruity of characters that arrive at each other through bent circuits—relationships of necessity and abuse and their own rules. People marry for green cards; mistresses meet the wives whose marriages they are wrecking. Krasikov has an ear for lyrical, non-interfering prose and gentle metaphor, making this a fluid read.

The Furies, Janet Hobhouse. I read most of this book while sitting in an inflatable rafting tube off Hero Island in Lake Champlain, and it is somewhat miraculous, in more than one respect, that the book didn’t end up at the bottom of the lake. It is another memoir , this one disguised thinly as a novel, about a woman growing up in New York to become a writer (cf. Adler, Gornick; I swear I am not doing this on purpose), though it also takes place in England (the protagonist attends Oxford) and focuses primarily on her relationship with her mother. It was left unfinished when Hobhouse died of ovarian cancer in 1991 at the age of 42.

The title led me, perhaps unfairly, to expect a narrative guided by cosmic mystery. Helen’s childhood is spent trying to please and keep up with her loving but often delirious mother, whose wish to be her daughter’s everything is foreshadowed by Hobhouse with fit apprehension:

“All at once she’s there, opening the taxi door, which hits the sun so light smites like a hero’s wound on the windowpane and on her, sunlight and shining blackness breaking into the swaying greenery as she gets out and crouches and opens her arms. I walk and then run, colliding with her and taking in the feel of her cool cheeks and warm dress, of her glossy dark hair, her mouth and neck, warm and damp and scented faintly with Blue Grass. And she, in her ritual of repossession, removes from me this warm May day my beret, my sweater, my bloomers (“Why are you so bundled up?”), my shoes and socks if she could. But she stops there and holds my clothes in one hand and me in the other as we get back in the taxi together. She smells the top of my head like a mother cat, brushes my hair out with her fingers, tousles me, unpins me, unbuttons me as far as she can and then, only then, she  says, “Where shall we go?”

Helen’s family is not rich, but her education is endowed, and she struggles to explain herself to the families of her wealthy friends from boarding school. Later, Helen’s adolescence is shaped by tacit complicity with an artist grandmother and clashes with a father in London who expects her to live “Britishly” when she comes to live with him. As an adult, she pursues relationships with men that feel like they are there to fill holes, including an affair with a writer in her building whom we know to be Philip Roth. (“I admired the sparseness of his living arrangements, the just so and no more of his furnishings, the blandness of what he had on his walls.”) Apropos of nothing, guess which writer has a long quote on the back of the book.

The ending mudslides beyond the grasp of cosmic power into unconscionable misery: an ill mother who, feeling herself a burden to her daughter and others, commits suicide; a house that gets mysteriously torched; and a fatal cancer diagnosis. Hobhouse, fortunately, seeks out comfort in domestic metaphor: at the boarding school she is frightened of “being left in a puppyhood of confusions”; adolescence “set[s] up inside me a disturbed housekeeping, not quite upheaving the works”;  the hospital is “a place that would take you out of your garden-party clothes, hide your lipstick and turn you into gray, rumpled bedding.”

Aside from an introduction by Daphne Merkin for the NYRB Classics edition, there is a 34-page prologue by Hobhouse that details her (Helen’s) family history dating back to her great-great-grandfather. By this and other decisions of curious attention, we are reminded that The Furies is Hobhouse’s attempt to tell her story with the sense of completeness and urgency that is to be pressed out of one’s final words.

Red Weather, Pauls Toutonghi. Red Weather continues the theme of immigrant identity in America, and could easily be taught in a course alongside One More Year, though Toutonghi’s book has more comic indulgences. The narrator, Yuri Balodis, is the 16-year-old son of Latvian immigrants settled in Milwaukee in 1989. The Berlin Wall is falling. Yuri’s father, an overnight janitor at a car dealership, has become a true believer in American capitalist democracy, so when Yuri falls in love with an intelligent girl peddling The Socialist Worker outside of Milwaukee’s remaining factories, his heart is easily persuaded to forsake all that Rudolfi has proselytized about the American dream.

The book is backed up by some comprehensive research. Toutonghi gives us an informed lesson the history and geography of Milwaukee. I also like that the book isn’t afraid to name brands—we get talk about the corporate histories of local companies like Pabst and Tropic Banana. But at times the first-person narration is too intelligent for even precocious Yuri, and again, the dialogue from the non-native English speakers trickily invokes a lot of the roundabout phrasings expected of someone who has only recently mastered English.

A good amount of muscle hangs on the skeleton of immediate plot, which hinges on an impulsive and irresponsible decision that Yuri makes partly to impress Hannah. The resolution is only delayed when relatives from Latvia come to visit. But Yuri finds maturity (and comes to accept complexity in his beliefs) though his developing bond with them, particularly his cousin Eriks, an aspiring rock musician who relays the cruel realities of collectivism in his home country.

A Frail Metal Sound

September 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

While I was out of town, safely removed from the noxious gases of the Internet, I learned secondhand of the passing of Seamus Heaney.

I came to his work via a course on New Critical Theory at Merrimack. I would like to think it says more about Heaney’s power of image than it does any of my teenage sensibilities that the poem of his I remember best is the one about the drowning cats, the ‘scraggy wee shits.’

Where Am I?

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