walls and bridges

1. The Question: I never know how to respond when my students ask me why we have to read so many books about “different cultures.”  My first reaction is anger – an unwieldy, emotional kind that is impulsive and cruel.   It is precisely for this reason that I always keep a cup of iced coffee nearby.  I reach for it when I need a few seconds to think about how cool it is to have a job.

If I’m lucky, I can compose my face into a generous smile and begin to ask students questions about what they deem to be “different” about the culture in the book at hand.  Eventually, after much pencil tapping and shrugging and uncomfortable side-eyeing, we reach the groundbreaking conclusion that the book is not solely about A White Straight American Experience.  The students repeat phrases like “it hits you over the head,” and “rubs your nose in it,” as though they’re being potty trained by a sadist.

If I’m not feeling so lucky, I’ll say something about literature being a conduit for all human experience and leave it at that.  After all, we have syntax and shit to talk about.  I’ll promise myself that I’ll  dedicate a Research Sunday in the near future to the answer for this question and I’ll promise myself that I’ll get it right next time.

Both responses are wrong: incomplete, superficial.

2.  The Walls:  In the Time of the Butterflies, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Life of Pi, The Awakening, anything by Gloria Anzaldua

Nick Hornby reports crying tears of frustration at the hands of Iain M. Banks’s Science Fiction novel Excession in a 2005 Believer column.  Even the blurb on the back filled him with terror.  I feel similarly when trying for any point of time to make headway into The Fellowship of the Ring or the first book of The Game of Thrones.  I want the experience of having read these books, because I want to participate in conversations about Ents and Dire Wolves when they are happening around me (as they often do).  However, I don’t want the experience of ACTUALLY READING the books because I hate them.  I don’t know why.  I do like dragons and Renaissance festivals.

I have a wall when it comes to detective series novels.  I’ll read a one-off thriller with no problem.  But as soon as I turn the book over and see that this same detective is making a return visit to the pages, I suddenly can’t be bothered.

Another wall: All Historical Fiction.

This doesn’t mean that I am particularly snooty.  I’ll read just about anything about a serial killer, a school shooting, or a person who rides horses.

All readers are going to have natural walls.  Some books need to be read anyway.

3. The Bridges:  Fight Club, Fist Stick Knife Gun, Gilgamesh, Hamlet,  Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self

I guess it’s not rocket science, but it will take more than month of Research Sundays to figure out how to teach students that walls are sometimes worth scaling (especially since I can’t read a book about a dragon), and experiences are worth reading even if no one is interested in appropriating the coolest parts.

 

 

 

I see a long journey and its end.  The face in the crowd is yours.  I see a long journey and at the end of the day the face in the crowd belongs to you.  I am reading something.  You think I forgot this, but I didn’t.  I am reading something and you are listening and we have never met, so it’s the end of a long, long journey.  The face in the crowd is yours.

Once, it happened in a town far away from both our homes and I forgot to look for you because I was so nervous.  After I read, sick with a fever that refused to abate for days before or after, I stood, sweaty and bigger than everyone there.  I just stood there and didn’t look.  If ever, at the end of a lifetime of years, you are finally there, I might forget to look.  I might miss your face.

There is only one lifetime of years, and it’s the lifetime or the years, never both.  You have to choose.  These hands are ten years older and ten years more beautiful; the scar from our time is still visible on the middle knuckle, the biggest one, the busted one, the one that grew back strong and crooked.  It is because you are not dead.

The dead are gone and about them I am wistful with eyes full of stars and dreams that bend hard upon the violence of loss.  You are not dead, and I am not wistful.  I am curious about your voice and the way you get in and out of a car, the way you order a coffee and snap a red leash onto your dog’s collar.  I am new and whole and curious now, and it was a long journey that’s now at its end.  All our memories are of things that never happened.

There is one picture of us that I still like.  You are seated at an outdoor café in Fredricksburg, and the sun is just about gone.  You are probably having peaches or something. Your teeth are big and bright in the dusk, your eyes in shadow.  The darkness looks to be coming down the street, rolling in on a cloud.  You don’t know it’s there, and neither, probably, do I.  There’s a book in your lap – one that I bought you and wrote your name in.  One you sold later, after. The darkness has already made a home in your eyes, but all I see is love.  I am not in the picture.

 

 

 

 

 

A trick of the weather; a day like another

I’m happy the holidays are over.  I’m usually happy when they arrive, but I’m always more than ready for things to get back to normal.  I like my job, and I like my routine, and even though I love presents and I adore my family, I kind of wish that Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year happened every third year.

It’s been a good fall for me, though.  My new story “Field Trip” is up at Devilfish Review.  There are other stories I like in this issue, as well, namely In A Bubble, a weirdly disturbing 1001 Nights trip.

I had a fabulous time reading submissions for the second issue of Interfictions Online in August and September.  So many of the stories were interesting, and a few were truly great.  It was the best kind of work.

I’m making good headway on a novel, thanks to this interesting and fruitful 9-month workshop lead by Manuel Gonzales.  It’s the friendliest, funniest, most productive workshop – worth every minute.

Haul of the season (gifts, purchases, and books kindly lent):

A couple of these books I procured at Malvern Books, a new small-press book shop in Austin.  I had no idea what kind of shop it was, and I fought bewilderment as I browsed the books on my first visit – I didn’t recognize many of the books, and the ones I did recognize I already had.  It took a few minutes to realize that the shelves were filled with books that chains (and even Book People, the big Indie here in town) would never touch.  It’s a miracle store.  I’ve been back a few times, and each time I leave with something I probably shouldn’t have spent the grocery money on.  Please – the two of you who read this sometimes-blog -say a little prayer for this book store’s business.

malvern books

They have a neat blog going, too, full of interesting reviews and information – like this post about publishing that features prominently a cover of Mary Jo Buttafuoco’s memoir about pyschopaths and the people who love them.

Summer is Over

Weather Update:  Summer is over, officially, and though we were promised a cold front today, it’s still about 96 degrees outside in Austin, and about 99% humidity.

Publication Update:   It’s been a while since I’ve had anything new accepted.  It’s been over a year.  That’s a while.  But there’s a new story on the way!  You’ll be able to read it soon in Devilfish Review, where there’s already a lot of weird stuff you can read right now.  I spent the better part of a year writing this story (called “The Field Trip”),  all the while trying to write something I thought was more important.

Books Update: I spent the summer reading so many good books.  I read a lot of pretty mediocre and terrible books, too, but that is what happens while reading.  I haven’t been reading online at all lately, which was the original reason for starting this blog.  I’m linking to Powell’s since they’re not Amazon and they’re in Portland, but you can probably find e-versions of all of these.  Since my tastes run murderous and weird,  I only recommend the following if you are feeling particularly good about the decisions you’ve made in  your own life:

 

Music Update: Many thanks to Waterloo Records and their eclectic listening stations.

Lord Huron’s Lonesome Dreams is one of the most beautiful albums I’ve ever seen.  It’s a gorgeous concept from start to finish – album art, video, arrangement, lyrics.  All of it.  It’s just an experience that I’m glad I had.  They are playing tonight in Austin, and I’m not there because my dog’s head is in a cone and he’s really upset about it.

Shirlette Ammons‘s album Twilight For Gladys Bentley has been on repeat since May.  This album’s namesake, Gladys Bentley, was a poet, musician, and entertainer who was openly gay and genderbent.  Shirlette is honest, funny, and pissed off about all kinds of interesting stuff. This song, Fast FWDing is by far my favorite, but I’m a fan of Take A Chance, as well.  Especially the part about the cat.

Whitehorse’s “Devil’s Got A Gun” has got to be the best song I’ve heard in years.  Here is a live version that sounds like a bad dream you’re not upset to revisit.  The album version is terrific, too.  After the top of your head is blown off during the bridge, the ending harmony is like a revelation.  I have listened to the song many times solely to hear that last line.  They’re Canadian.

I know Mal Blum has been around for a while, but I only just discovered her music this past March at SXSW.  She was unbelievably cute, and her bassist and drummer were also unbelievably cute, so I was prepared to hate her music because I thought it would probably be unbelievably cute. The past few years I have developed a very real aversion to silliness, playfulness, and general cheer.  But then, she sang this song.  I was completely wrong about her.  She hadn’t released her newest album Tempest in A Teacup yet, and I have only heard parts of it.  However, you won’t be upset if you download the following songs from Everywhere You Go Somewhere: Watercolors,  Circus Heart Part II, New Year’s Eve, San Christobal.

Also, here is your new internet girlfriend with a guitar, Laura Tsaggaris.

The Woman Upstairs

I’m reading Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs and having an exceptionally good experience with it.  Every time I hit a dry spell with books, I become irrationally convinced that I’m never going to find another one that doesn’t leave me shrugging, and that books are done with me. I’ve hit the end.

For instance, I’ve been slowly reading Allegra Goodman’s Intuition for a month, feeling the entire time that I might have read it before.  It is just unfamiliar enough to make me question the things I am sure I already knew.  It’s good, but it’s not spellbinding (probably because I’ve read it before).  And I listened to Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear, salivating the entire time.  It was fascinating, but I was reading the book.  Not the other way around.

woman upstairsThe Woman Upstairs has complete control of my imagination right now.  I don’t even care how it ends.

Here is a review of the book by Lionel Shriver, who also owned me for the few days it took to read We Need To Talk About Kevin.

Goodbye Goodreads

After a few long and terribly conflicted days, I’ve decided to end my warm, beautiful love affair with Goodreads. I never intended for my data to be of use to Amazon, and I still maintain only the barest of contact with them. Some of the reasons are here in this article. I’ll be looking for another great independent place to share books (though I doubt there’s anything out there as good as Goodreads) – if anyone has any suggestions, I’m all eyes.

Nobody asked me to join this conversation

First, there’s Dan:

“Occasionally, I have students who want to be rock stars. They have started a band, and they are spending their weekends and off hours writing songs and practicing. Without fail, these kids know everything there is to know about new music. They are listening all the time—they can discourse on Bob Dylan as easily as they can talk about the new e.p.  from a new band from Little Rock, Arkansas, or wherever, and they have a whole hard drive full of demos from obscure artists that they have downloaded from the internet.

I wish that my students who want to be fiction writers were similarly engaged. But when I ask them what they’ve read recently, they frequently only manage to cough up the most obvious,   high profile examples. What if my rock star students had only heard of …um….The Beatles?  We listened to them in  my Rock Music Class in high school.  And…. And Justin Timberlake?  And,  uh,  yeah,   there’s that one band, My Chemical Romance, I heard one of their songs once.”  Dan Chaon, From Review Review*

Then, there’s Robert:

“But I don’t think Chaon’s advice is necessarily beneficial to literary fiction writers. For one thing, most contemporary literary fiction is terrible: mannered, conservative and obvious. Most of the stories in the annual best-of anthologies are mediocre, as are the stories that populate most magazines. It’s inevitable that this should be so; fiction writing is ludicrously popular, too many people are doing it, and most of them are bound to be bad at it. MFA programs, while of great benefit to talented writers, have had the effect of rendering a lot of lousy writers borderline-competent, and many of these competent writers get stories and books published.”   Robert Lennon, Salon.com,  March 29, 2013

Here’s what nobody asked me to talk about:

I’ve been similarly frustrated by the internet’s flattening of life, art, literature.  In the glut of information and entertainment, I have a hard time distinguishing between what is being created for artistic purposes and what is being replicated for marketing purposes, and most of the time I come up short.  It’s not that I don’t care – I do.  It’s just that I can’t figure out what is really happening in the relationship between my physical brain and my internet soul.  I think it is partly because I was born and raised into young adulthood before the internet, and I miss that missing piece.

What Lennon fails to recognize is that this flood of mediocre writing is a valuable means of measurement and contextualization.  The fewer people writing, the more narrow our choices for what to read, and how to read it.    The internet is open for business, and all kinds of people who never had voices before suddenly have tumblrs and lit mags and weird hybrid sites that celebrate inexcusable excess.  And a lot of it is bad right now.  So what?

What we don’t have are those visual cues that used to be dead giveaways – the covers of vanity press books, for instance.  Everything now looks like it could be pretty good, and we don’t find out that a story is terrible until we are halfway through it.   And that’s five minutes we’ll never get back.

The other day, my director stopped me by the copier.

“Who decides what goes into the canon?” He asked (when he taught, he taught mathematics).  It’s a good question.  The answers are being challenged by all kinds of writers and readers because there is simply more (and more ways) to read than ever before.  There are more voices coming through, and more people challenging the standards of the traditional canon.  Many of them are not great.  But some are.  If this is the case, how can we have too many people trying to make art?

toomanybooks 2

Too Many People Writing Books

Like any good artist, Chaon’s hopeful rock star with a million free downloads on her hard drive does not love and respect every single song, and will not recommend every single song.  What that aspiring rock star will be able do, however, is tell any other listener what is wrong with the “mannered, conservative, and obvious” songs, and why those songs fail as art.  Then, she can use what she knows about everybody else’s shitty recordings to avoid creative pitfalls and cliches.  She can build upon her own mistakes and break stupid rules that are commonly followed by dilettantes (because she’s not one – she’s a growing artist, well-aware of the stylistic and theoretical trends (both new and old) of her community of musicians).  And she can distinguish her own voice from the others.

*Full Disclosure: Dan Chaon is one of my favorite writers of all time, but that’s not why I think he’s right about this.