Costing the Earth

May 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

Oh my God, I’ve lived a very simple life! You can say, Oh yes, at thirteen this happened to me and at fourteen . . . But those are facts. But the facts can obscure the truth, what it really felt like. Every human being has paid the earth to grow up. Most people don’t grow up. It’s too damn difficult. What happens is most people get older. That’s the truth of it. They honor their credit cards, they find parking spaces, they marry, they have the nerve to have children, but they don’t grow up. Not really. They get older. But to grow up costs the earth, the earth. It means you take responsibility for the time you take up, for the space you occupy. It’s serious business. And you find out what it costs us to love and to lose, to dare and to fail. And maybe even more, to succeed. What it costs, in truth. Not superficial costs—anybody can have that—I mean in truth. That’s what I write. What it really is like. I’m just telling a very simple story.

–Maya Angelou, from The Art of Fiction No. 119

Short Short List

May 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

As Short Story Month wraps up, Powell’s celebrates by naming its Short List of Best Short Story Collections of the 21st Century (So Far), with thirty-one titles making the cut. Among them are veterans like George Saunders, Alice Munro, and Lorrie Moore, alongside rising stars such as Adam Levin (Hot Pink) and Kyle Minor (Praying Drunk).

Public Intellectuals in the Twenty-First Century

May 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

The idea of a public intellectual belongs to a far-gone era, but the unusual emergence of Thomas Piketty’s treatise Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and the viral celebrity that has been attained by its author, has Sam Tanenhaus placing him alongside so-called rock stars from previous decades: Susan Sontag, Allan Bloom, Christopher Lasch, Francis Fukuyama, Samantha Power. (It is interesting that, even though Piketty is French, hotshot European thinkers like Slavoj Žižek and Bernard-Henri Lévy go unmentioned in the article.)

Sontag embraced the role more willingly than the others:

As Ms. Sontag worked through the long history of outlaw art, she made herself, and her reactions, part of the story. “I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it,” she wrote. “That is why I want to talk about it, and why I can.”

That she talked about it in the pages of Partisan Review, a bastion of somber high seriousness, compounded the allure. So did Ms. Sontag’s dramatic good looks and sleek black-clad figure. Eventually she would impersonate herself in Woody Allen’s “Zelig” and pose for Annie Leibovitz. To this day, no intellectual has so elegantly played the role she actually lived.

The channels for such personalities have been winnowed. Hollywood would never welcome them back, and if it did, they would resist the irony that requires them to play along. We do not have The Dick Cavett Show anymore, are unlikely to see televised feuds in the Mailer-vs.-Vidal vein. Nobody watches C-SPAN2. The Daily Show and its companion programs try to do what they can without spitting into the soup. As we are finding out by this year’s slew of cancelled university commencement speeches, the free market rewards self-congratulation–for which there will never be an attrition of demand–and not the challenging of assumptions.

Likewise, Piketty’s ascent comes at a time when the public has been starving for someone to use their heft to smack around the job-creator myth and send it back to its lair. It is valuable that he has put into words what many laypeople have been thinking, and arming them with new arguments for the kitchen table, but it’s not going to help discourse on any level if that is the only reason people are reading his book.

If Piketty has a rival for celebrity, it might be Evgeny Morozov, whose writing does not eschew discomfort, but rather explores the dark tunnels of human interaction in the age of social media and offers well-intended caution about what the Internet promises versus what it delivers.

In the book Mr. Morozov puts quotation marks around every reference to “the Internet,” and with that tic he makes a larger point: readers should stop and question everything they have been taught about technology, including that the Internet exists.

Without such skepticism, Mr. Morozov and his supporters say, the public easily succumbs to the slick promises and catchwords of online entrepreneurs or TED talks — “open” or “generative” or “transparent” or “participatory.” And those words lead to real beliefs, with real consequences, he argues — for example, that privacy is just an archaic notion, or that information “wants to be free.”

Mothers of Invention

May 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

On this Mother’s Day, Nadxieli Nieto’s Tumblr project Literary Mothers collects the testaments of eleven writers on the female authors who inspired them and their work.

Featured in the first batch: Matt Bell on Christine Schutt; Ashley Farmer on Joan Didion; Alexander Chasin on Andrea Dworkin, Audre Lorde, and Monique Wittig; Nadxieli Nieto on Nikki Giovanni; Amber Sparks on Isak Dinesen; Deb Olin Unferth on Gertrude Stein; Scott Cheshire on Kay Ryan; Porochista Khakpour on Can Xue; Lincoln Michel on Flannery O’Connor; Kelly Luce on Lois Lowry; Alissa Nutting on Lynda Barry; Erika Anderson on Cheryl Strayed.

I like Luce’s anecdote of acquiring The Giver through an act of shoplifting, and Farmer’s explanation how, through Didion, she opened herself to the idea of writing to discover what you know:

Didion has also said that writing is an aggressive, hostile thing—that you’re imposing your ideas on another person, that there’s so much “I” in it. But to me, writing to discover what you know is quite the opposite. It’s a call to humility. It’s the promise that writing can make us more human, more aware, more ourselves than we were before.

The project will remain open to new submissions, at least for the moment.

Inspector Dew Comes Full Circle

May 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

A memory: I’m 9 years old or thereabouts, at a yard sale with my mother. I come across a library-bound hardcover edition of something called The False Inspector Dew, by Peter Lovesey. I decide I have to have it.


My mother accedes. Never mind that the cover shows a man assailing a woman, his hand over her mouth, pearl necklace whipping around her neck. It comes at a time when I’m reading mysteries during idle hours at school—Encyclopedia Brown, Hardy Boys, only I keep skipping to the solutions at the end—and while this is obviously a step up in maturity, maybe the challenge is worth it.

I try the book but never finish it. It gets donated or tossed. But I remember the gaspy, sneering first page, the earliest demonstration I would discover of campy noir:




Chief Inspector Dew. The Commissioner remembered Dew. He was the man who had pulled in Dr Crippen. That was back in 1910. He was damned sure Dew had quit the force the same year.

He picked up a pencil. Under the message he wrote:

What’s this tomfoolery? Comedians are your department.    

Smiling to himself, he addressed it to his deputy.

The Deputy Commissioner was at Waterloo that day with Charlie Chaplin. Two hundred constables with arms linked were standing in support. Chaplin had come back to London after nine years in America. He had gone there as a member of the Karno troupe of music hall comedians. He was returning as one of the world’s most famous men. Thousands had gathered at the station.

When the train steamed in, the Deputy Commissioner and his senior men raced towards the compartment reserved for Chaplin. They seized him like a prisoner and hustled him along the platform. Beyond the barrier where the crowd was waiting, the blue line stood firm. Chaplin was funneled into a waiting limousine. Few people saw him.

Today I scored a Soho Press paperback edition of The False Inspector Dew on the front table of World Eye Bookstore for $3.

Baby Elephant Walk in Pithead Chapel

May 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

Utica was halfway between home and Niagara Falls. A five-day trip shortened to four because funds were drying up. Highway signs and trailers with curtains in the windows and buffalos and cacti painted on the sides, license plates from as far away as Saskatchewan. Your parents were able to get a room for a discount rate at the same Best Western you stayed in on the way there, and the pinball machine still showed you as having the second-place high score even though your brother Jason had hit your hand on purpose when you were toggling in your initials so they came out as SAA.

The May issue of Pithead Chapel is live and I’m pleased to have a new story, “Baby Elephant Walk,” a tale of steak houses and summer vacation and brothers and tourist kitsch.

Thanks to editor Keith Rebec and fiction editor Ashley Strosnider.

What I Read in April

May 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

Light reading this month, between baseball season starting and other things.

John Updike Review, Spring 2013. Even though this issue is a year old, and my membership to the John Updike Society has lapsed, it was good to catch up on the JUR in light of the release of Adam Begley’s biography of the writer this month. There are two articles here that I particularly enjoyed. Vidya Ravi, a Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge, writes about the theme of houses, structure and shelter in Updike’s 1968 novel, Couples. It starts with the observation that its protagonist, Piet Hanema, is an architect, and is a refreshing and comprehensive take on a novel that is too casually dismissed, I feel, as one of Updike’s forays into eyebrow-waggling suburban titillation. I was also glad to see Donald J. Grenier write about the subject of Updike as a “reluctant critic,” one whose training in visual art and New Yorker pedigree molded him into a reader who could dutifully evaluate the work of others as fair efforts of art without the itch of projection that too often guided his peers.

Book of Clouds, Chloe Aridjis. Second read. The first read was back when the book came out, in 2009, but all I could remember was the sublime way it evoked the best work of W.G. Sebald (Austerlitz, The Rings of Saturn). And yet, I couldn’t remember was what it was about. I worried that I might have been projecting too much on the book, so I read it again. The sense of euphoria I remember feeling came back quickly.

Aridjis is well-traveled: born in New York, raised in the Netherlands and Mexico City, schooled at Oxford and now living in London. It is obvious, from the descriptions in Book of Clouds, that she has spent a lot of time in Berlin as well.

The heroine of Book of Clouds is a young Mexican woman, Tatiana, who gets a job as a research assistant for an elderly historian named Weiss in his home. Mostly her work consists of transcribing the old man’s audio notes. Tatiana has no real connection to Berlin; she regards the voice announcing stops on the train as one of her few friends, but in wandering about the city, and listening to Weiss’s remembrances, she becomes haunted by its corners. At the beginning of the book she has convinced herself she has seen Adolf Hitler, still alive and disguised as a woman. She begins dating a young man she meets through her work and at one point, during a party, gets lost in the darkness of an underground bowling alley that had likely been used by the Gestapo.

Book of Clouds taps into the same ostalgie that gave us Good-Bye Lenin (a film I was inspired to re-watch after reading this book) and other works looking back at the years after the wall came down, a scramble to preserve in memory the many quotidian elements of East German life that disappeared in startlingly short time. Another book to which it might be compared is one that came later, Teju Cole’s Open City, another novel often felt to be influenced by Sebald. But the resemblances take different routes: Cole’s is about a perambulator, Aridjis’s about a man trying to tell his story through memory and history; and yet both books, almost coincidentally, feature random assaults committed on the protagonists near the end.

Quite Early One Morning, Dylan Thomas. This is a collection of miscellaneous writings, published by New Directions, that I bought along with a book of Thomas’ poetry. The writings include reviews, essays, some fiction, but I was most interested in what Thomas writes about Wales, which he describes in the title essay, as well as “Reminisces of Childhood,” “Holiday Memory,” and “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” Describing a “sea-town” (likely Swansea, where he grew up) in “Quite Early One Morning”:

The sun lit the sea-town, not as a whole—from topmost down—reproving zinc-roofed chapel to empty but for rats and whispers grey warehouse on the harbour, but in separate bright pieces. There, the quay shouldering out, nobody on it now but the gulls and the capstans like small men in tubular trousers. Here, the roof of the police station, black as a helmet, dry as a summons, sober as Sunday. There, the splashed church, with a cloud in the shape of a bell poised above it, ready to drift and ring. Here the chimneys of the pink-washed pub, the pub that was waiting for Saturday night as an overjolly girl waits for sailors.

The town was not yet awake. The milkman lay still, lost in the clangour and music of his Welsh-spoken dreams, the wish-fulfilled tenor voices more powerful than Caruso’s, sweeter than Ben Davies’s, thrilling past Cloth Hall and Manchester House up to the frosty hills.

The town was not yet awake. Babies in upper bedrooms of salt-white houses dangling over water, or of bow-windowed villas squatting prim in neatly treed but unsteady hill-streets, worried the light with their half-in-sleep cries. Miscellaneous retired sea-captains emerged for a second from deeper waves than ever tossed their boats, then drowned again, going down, down into a perhaps Mediterranean-blue cabin of sleep, rocked to the sea-beat of their ears. Landladies, shawled and bloused and aproned with sleep in the curtained, bombazine-black of their once spare rooms, remembered their loves, their bills, their visitors, dead, decamped, or buried in English deserts until the trumpet of next expensive August roused them again to the world of holiday rain, dismal cliff and sand seen through the weeping windows of front parlours, tasselled table-cloths, stuffed pheasants, ferns in pots, fading photographs of the bearded and censorious dead, autograph albums with a lock of limp and colourless beribboned hair lolling out between the thick black boards.

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