Remembering Jenny Diski

April 28, 2016 § Leave a comment

The thing is, nobody is better at having cancer than me, in the sense that I like nothing more than sitting on the sofa doing fuck all and trying to write. – interview with the Observer.

 

I’d been impossible from the start. Asking questions that shouldn’t have been asked, thinking they had an answer. I’d sulked: I don’t remember about what, but I’m sure I did. I brought men home. I fucked men in Doris’s house. I wasn’t doing enough work at school (my new school) and for a while I had a boyfriend whose main wish was that I wore a uniform and who met me for a little fellatio before the school bell rang. I skipped lessons I thought didn’t matter and sat in the coffee bar across from the school smoking and drinking coffee, reading or sometimes with a friend. I didn’t work hard enough to fulfil my potential. I wasn’t grateful to Doris for the opportunity she had given me. – on her time with Doris Lessing in the London Review of Books.

The Guardian shares favorite quotes from the late Jenny Diski, who has died at the age of 68 after a battle with cancer.

Beverly Cleary Turns 100

April 12, 2016 § Leave a comment

In childhood, the humor that results from your actions—making a NO SMOKING sign that looks like NOSMO KING, or singing about the dawnzer lee light instead of the dawn’s early light, or getting burrs stuck in your hair and not wanting to explain why you put them on your head—is very often the result of your best efforts to get along in the world as you understand it. If people laugh, it can step on your dignity a bit. Ramona bore these slights sometimes with reserve and sometimes with indignation.

At The New Yorker, Sarah Larson celebrates Beverly Cleary on the author’s 100th birthday.

Rhyme Crime

April 12, 2016 § Leave a comment

Calvin Trillin’s poem in the April 4 issue of The New Yorker, titled “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?,” did not go over well on the Internet. It is a strange attempt at light verse expressing an elder person’s bafflement with modern food trends and a culture that refuses to cooperate with one’s western sensibilities by remaining comfortably static. Trillin is a house name at The New Yorker, and indeed the poem reads like something the magazine would only publish because it refused to turn down one of its own. Defenders say it’s making fun of foodies, but to our sensitive cosmopolitan ears, it doesn’t warp itself enough for satire. It’s racist, the kind of racism we too often ignore because it comes out of the mouths of our uncles, whom we don’t expect to know better. In The New Republic, Timothy Yu writes that the poem “comes out of a long tradition of white writers praising Chinese culture while ignoring Chinese people.”

Another aspect that seems to be generating resentment is Trillin’s use of rhyme, which sounds like something more likely to be found in the older version of The Baffler (“Then respect was a fraction of meagre / For those eaters who’d not eaten Uighur.”)

If there is a place for rhyme in twenty-first century poetry, this piece of crap didn’t do anything to help carve out the real estate. The practice does have its defenders. I think back to the earnest laments of Nicholson Baker, in the voice of his protagonist Paul Chowder, in The Anthologist:

Poetry is a controlled refinement of sobbing. We’ve got to face that. And if that’s true, do we want to give drugs so that people won’t weep? No, because if we do, poetry will die. The rhyming of rhymes is a powerful form of self-medication. All these poets, when they begin to feel that they are descending into one of their personal canyons of despair, use rhyme to help themselves tightrope over it. Rhyming is the avoidance of mental pain by addicting yourself to what will happen next. It’s like chain-smoking—you light one line with the glowing ember of the last. You set up a call, and you want a response. You posit a pling, and you want a fring. You propose a plong, and you want a frong. You’re in suspense. You are solving a puzzle.

Rhyming in the genius’s version of the crossword puzzle—when it’s good. When it’s bad it’s intolerable dogwaste and you wish it had never been invented. But when it’s good, it’s great. It’s no coincidence that Auden was a compulsive doer of crossword puzzles, and a rhymer, and a depressive, and a smoker, and a drinker, and a man who shuffled into Louise Bogan’s memorial service in his bedroom slippers.

What I Read in February and March

April 2, 2016 § Leave a comment

A Heart Beating Hard, Lauren Foss Goodman. Heard the author read from this book at Conversations & Connections in Washington, DC, in 2015. A Heart Beating Hard is divided into chapters alternately assigned to “Marge,” “Margie,” and “Marjorie,” and, much like Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, at first it’s not clear whether or not these names refer to the same person, or different people, or aspects of the same person, or different ways the same person is viewed by different people.

So the reader must turn to externalities to make distinctions among the three: we learn about Marjorie through her job as a greeter in a big-box retail store, her conversations with her therapist, Dr. Goodwin, and the people at the fraternal organization where she is a regular and drinks Shirley Temples. Margie, seemingly younger than Marjorie, is in early adolescence and lives in an apartment above her friend Lucy. Our only images of Marge come by way of the drunk stepfather who is doing horrible things to her.

It’s difficult to describe this book in a way that doesn’t reveal its secret, but it’s apparent that Goodman is trying to depict the paths that a life of abuse can take—the compartmentalizations, the memories we return to, the small obsessions. The language effectively conveys the fear, restricting itself to a frightened, internal simplicity:

Lucy did the talking that Margie did not like to do. She knew all the words. Lucy could fit her body into spaces much smaller than where Margie could go. She would lie down low against the wall and squint through the grass and tell Margie what was going on down there, in there. Lucy had all the words and Lucy could see all sorts of things that Margie could not.

There’s a small hat. A very small hat. Like a boy’s hat. And I see a tiny pink dress too. Definitely a small dress, with straps, and a big bottom part, like a ballerina, like a ballerina’s dress. I can see them for sure, Margie. But no small people. I don’t see the small people but I can tell that they’re there. They’re back there, I think. Behind those dandelions, see? The grass is moving a little and I know they’re in there. The boy and the girl, and she doesn’t even have her dress on. They’re naked in there. Do you see, Margie?

Margie held herself up on her elbows and knees and tried to see what Lucy saw.

I don’t see.

You know what they’re doing in there, Margie? Do you know?

I don’t see. I don’t know.

Glaciers, Alexis M. Smith. Glaciers is a slim, exquisite story that achieves a great deal through slightness of style and patient storytelling. It has a young heroine who lives a simple life in Portland, Oregon, where she works at a library. Isabel grew up in Alaska and, at many points in the book, flashes back to her youth.

Isabel is a keen noticer, and there are numerous celebrations of artifacts and preservation: she mends old books at the library, haunts thrift shops, and ruminates over a collection of old photographs. She lives on the top floor of a ninety-year-old house, where her collected antiquities “do not look out of place” but Isabel “realizes that these things were all new, once.” Photographs turn up in the book in other ways, too: the Seattle ferry is full of “the kind of loose-minded travelers who pointed and photographed without really seeing.”

About midway through the book, we find a target toward which to build momentum: that is Spoke, a soldier returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, now an I.T. technician at the library where Isabel works, and with whom she becomes smitten.

The slightness of plot is an asset as it allows a more acute focus on the quirks of the book’s characters, appropriate for a story that seems to fetishize observation. There are moments when Glaciers feels like a mumblecore film, particularly in its insistence on reconciling the lead character’s dream with the interference of minor buzzing realities. In this case, Isabel’s dream is to visit Amsterdam:

Walking home, she thinks Amsterdam must be a lot like Portland. A slick fog of a city in the winter, drenched in itself. In the spring and summer: leafy, undulating green, humming with bicycles, breeze-borne seeds whirling by like tiny white galaxies. And in the early glorious days of fall, she thinks, looking around her, chill mist in the mornings, bright sunshine and halos of gold and amber for every tree.

Parcel, Fall/Winter 2014; Summer 2015. I loved the artwork in these issues, by Chyrum Lambert and Juliana Romano, respectively. The piece “Tampax Pearl Active Soccer Girl” by Meagan Cass eludes classification, speaking in clever, pointed language to the pain of a childhood spent trying to live up to expectations:

Tampax Pearl Active Soccer Girl, have you ever blacked out during a game ,the ninety minutes a blur of rage and fear and red and yellow cards? Did your father tell you you’d played like a bitch? Like a whore? Did he say he was mistaken, he thought you were someone else, a different kind of girl, a golden girl, a magic girl, a girl who was not a girl at all?

At the Hawthorne Diner, eating cheese fries with Debbie Costello, did you admit how you sometimes dreamed of quitting, how the game felt like a too-small aquarium? Did part of you hate the moon that was the pearl that was the ball? One afternoon in Pelham, a week of out of ACL rehab, did you ruin your left knee for good, nothing left for the surgeon to graft? Did relief and dread move through you in waves? Did your whole body flicker and go dark?

Any Deadly Thing, Roy Kesey. Another book picked up from Conversations & Connections. I’ve had the pleasure of talking with Kesey twice. The stories in Any Deadly Thing are unafraid to go places—stories are set in Peru, Uruguay, China, and even a fictional part of what sounds like northern Oceania. While these are not war zones, the pressured environments take their toll on Kesey’s characters, who have a tendency to respond to the stress of being out of their element with contentiousness and aggression. As characters wrestle with their demons, antagonists lurk. In the case of the first story, the deadly things are rattlers:

He killed thirty-one last year. He used to skin the biggest ones and tan the hides, but never really found any use. For a while he kept all the rattles, still has a box up in the rafters somewhere, a hundred at least, maybe five years’ worth. He’s heard there’s dust inside that if it gets in your eyes will blind you, and he wonders if it’s true.

In other stories, like “Wall,” the deadly thing resides inside the soul, demonstrated when a married couple tries to rebound when their anniversary plans go awry in Guatemala. These characters, as do others in the collection, are strapped with a quick rage and astonishing lack of ability to make decisions benefiting the bigger picture.

All That Is, James Salter. This is the third Salter book that I have read, and while it is just as sensual as A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years, it is more scattered, seemingly unsure of where its center is. I was astonished to see that it was published only in 2013 and was Salter’s last novel, because the book feels much, much older, with a midcentury aesthetic, employing language of tender patience and amusing things to say about the book publishing industry.

The life it depicts is a full one: Philip Bowman fights the Japanese on an American battleship in World War II, then returns home, goes to college, and begins a career as an editor at a New York publishing house. He marries a woman named Vivian, divorces her, and dips in and out of uncertain love. But the book also follows down the roads of the people in Philip’s life, such as his colleague, Neil Eddins, and his lover, Christine, and her daughter, Anet, who later works for Philip and becomes another of his lovers.

There is a thread of unsettlement running through the book, even though (for the most part) it never leaves New York, and Philip’s career is never threatened. It treats him and the other characters too gently as they shift and adjust their pursuits, but none of them ever seem pleased enough to lock themselves down. Even the title suggests a diminishment: is that all there is?

Willow Springs #77, Spring 2016. A sharp-looking issue, with a new redesign. I really liked James Kimbrell’s poem “Elegy for My Mother’s Ex-Boyfriend,” which remembers a man admired by the young narrator: “Let it be said / that Tim’s year was divided / into two seasons: sneakers / and flip flops.” The image of this heavy, lunking person occupying space and mind is weighted by well-selected, thunking nouns: “…and in / the mornings when I tiptoed / past him on my way / to school, his jowls / fat as a catcher’s mitt, I never cracked / an empty bottle across that space / where his front teeth / rotted out.”

Nick Fuller Goggins has a story called “Honeymoon Bandits” that begins, “Those of us present at the first holdup in January couldn’t let the fact be forgotten.” It’s the story of a Bonnie and Clyde-like couple who robs banks in a small town on Cape Cod, and the fascination that the community develops with them. Their intentions, it turns out, are political: they are environmental activists looking to fund their operations.

There is a delightfully calm distance in the narration, as though we are being told the story by an amused elder historian who has had time the process and put away an event that up front should seem traumatic. It also means we never get too close to the robbers themselves: we never learn their names, and the narrator only identifies them by the eccentricities that remain in his memory:

Once it became clear they weren’t leaving, we took stock of their character. We compared eyewitness accounts, noticing that they dressed sensibly. Heavy flannel shirts, wool caps, mittens, boots: signs that they respected both the winter and themselves. The girl had an athletic build, as though she’d once enjoyed competitive swimming. She did not display any unnecessary skin. Nor did she seem to apply makeup (perhaps her mask provided all the concealer she needed). She wore her dark hair in two braids that fell over her shoulders. She did have a tattoo that peeked out whenever she rolled up her sleeves, but it was modest enough: a sprig of Queen Anne’s lace tendriled around her forearm.

The couple wore no jewelry, only matching loops of purple thread on their ring fingers. Recently married—we suspected—saving up for proper rings. Then we laughed, for if anyone could afford genuine wedding bands, it was our Honeymoon Bandits. Yet they kept their word, or at least maintained their appearance of doing so: despite their withdrawals, they wore no glittering rings or fur coats or any such extravagances, a testament to their thrift. We examined how we ourselves might cut back. We urged our husbands to repair broken chairs rather than hauling them to the dump. We asked our wives to rig their sewing machines and mend our torn jackets. We brainstormed new ways to chip away at our credit card payments and took up the old habit of clipping coupons, unable to fathom why we’d ever stopped.

The choice of Cape Cod as a setting is astute—it is both a provincial and transient place that would seem to lock onto strangers rather quickly, and so it’s appropriate for Fuller Goggins to have his characters respond with flattery, amusement, and judgment, as well as the queer pride that small-towners adopt when they have their routines interrupted.

Where Am I?

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