14 August, 2015

Writer’s Cramp #29 and #30

Two for the price of one this week!

02 August, 2015

The List: Reading April Through June 2015

Master Leiden, Still Life of Books

If books were money, my little personal library during the past three months would have made me feel like a multimillionaire. So many to choose from! Unfortunately, this embarrassment of riches was untouchable, thanks to one maddeningly time-consuming undertaking, doctoring a friend’s book manuscript, which took away any prospect of leisure reading. To complete it, I even put aside my own writing projects. It made for some extraordinarily trying weeks. Dropping that fat envelope in the mailbox (it wouldn’t fit through the slot; I needed a guard to unlock the box’s lid for me) was a literal and figurative weight lifted, a liberation from bondage.

And so, at last I can get on with reading all the books that piled up, finally sit down with them and fully appreciate my riches, eyes, fingers, nose, mind, and heart.

For the books I received between April Fool’s Day and now, I want to thank Ben T., Sarahberry (twice), the Freethought Books Project, my dear friend Mike, Kyra at Midwest Pages to Prisoners, Lady Val, and my incomparably wonderful mother, Evelyn. Your spontaneous gifts made me feel like a suddenly wealthy man.

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Fred Chappell, Familiars: Poems
“It’s all about cats!” Lefty said when he lent me his copy of Chappell’s latest collection. I think he was a little let down. After the noteworthy Midquest, which I read and reviewed here last year, Lefty expected more grandness than ailurophilia out of his favorite poet. Familiars isn’t without worth, though. The poems’ frequently simple structures and rhyme schemes make them accessible, while Chappell’s wit gives readers craving depth a little nook in which to sink. A forward tells us that most of the pieces here originally appeared in a limited-edition book cleverly titled Companion Volume, the paper for which was made out of cat hair.

Michael Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost
I like novels like this, about things that didn’t happen but also, in a way, did — that happened maybe in ways different in the details of names, words spoken, thoughts had. Sri Lanka has seen such bloodshed and horror, and Ondaatje comes at his native land unflinchingly. His characters shadowed and unknowable (though not unrelatable for that), his country appalling and beautiful, Ondaatje’s written a book that’s very much like life itself.

Jack Kerouac, On the Road
My first encounter with Kerouac, the man credited with naming and embodying the Beat Generation. The book contains its own synopsis in these three lines of dialog from its penultimate act:
“Sal, we gotta go and never stop going till we get there.”
“Where we going, man?”
“I don’t know but we gotta go.”
I wanted to tell Jack that it was okay, that he could calm the hell down and take a breath or two, but of course he can’t, having now been dead for forty-five years.

William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch
Although I was a young weirdo of eighteen when William Seward Burroughs died, I wasn’t versed in the Beats or familiar enough with 1950s counterculture to recognize the significance of this event without someone explaining it to me. My car only had a factory AM/FM stereo in it, on which I listened to a lot of KKFI, Kansas City’s independent radio station, though, and late into the night, for the entire week of Burroughs’s death, they broadcast readings of the poet’s work. I have distinct recollections of hurrying to the employee parking lot when my late shift at Kinko’s ended, so I wouldn’t miss one minute more of Bill’s terse, nasal recitations than absolutely necessary. What was it I was listening to? I couldn’t have told you — not satisfactorily — but the language was insane, obscene, and still, forty years after its writing, at least for a young would-be poet sitting in his piece-of-shit car behind a copy shop at 1 AM, entirely new.

Is Naked Lunch a work of literary art or a disgusting stream-of-consciousness hodgepodge? “I do not presume to impose ‘story’ ‘plot’ ‘continuity,’” Burroughs himself admits on the page. “I am not an entertainer.” But aren’t these impositions the very stuff of being a writer, an artist? The Supreme Court of Massachusetts, in 1966, declared the book to have at least one iota of redeeming social value, in its decision not to ban it as obscene. So that’s one thing, but the fact that the question can still be legitimately asked….

Magdalena Zyzak, The Ballad of Barabas Pierkiel: A Novel
Publishers Weekly declared that Zyzak’s debut novel would “infuriate as many readers as it delights.” For this reader, it did both. Funny, yes. Clever, yes. But even the funniest book needs to ease up on the humor and offer something solid, something real that makes you feel that what you’re reading isn’t purely a lark, bereft of purpose or point. After a while I wanted Zyzak to give it a rest with her yokel poking (I get it — the villagers in her Eastern European town are dumb!) and give us a sympathetic character worth rooting for. By the novel’s end, after hundreds of pages’ wishing, she reveals what I feared all along: none of what has gone before matters in the least.

Bill Cheng, Southern Cross the Dog
Episodic and supremely atmospheric, Cheng’s first go at a novel chronicles a young black man’s coming of age not only the twentieth-century American South but also under terrible bedevilment. The novel’s voices ring clearly. Cheng has a real knack for dialog that brings to life the fetid swamplands and small-town nights in which his characters swelter. He conjures a bluesy brand of magical realism. And he never tips his hand as to whether the vexations his protagonist, poor Robert Chatham, endures throughout are the work of an otherworldly curse or just really bad luck. It’s an ambiguity that only adds to the book’s appeal.

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
Just the encouragement I needed. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Dillard offers essays on writerly existence, which zing around hilariously, sit stoically pondering, and marvel at its strange little wonders. Readers who are writers will come away from these pages refreshed and emboldened. Those who aren’t may gain a new perspective on this obsessive, misguided, solitary, masochistic avocation.

Taner Edis, Science and Nonbelief
Aside from having a name suspiciously resembling an anagrammatical nom de plume, Taner Edis is also notable for his work in the field of theoretical physics. His subject here is the meeting and diverging of two realms of thought — science and religion. I was surprised by the noncommittal stance he takes. He makes only a few implications about his opinion, which seems to coincide with biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria” (the idea that science and religion address entirely separate interests and competencies, and therefore cannot encroach on one another’s territory). Rather than preach, Edis teaches the controversy, so to speak, offering what I consider even-handed considerations of competing ideas. Starting with a succinct history of science, philosophy, and doubt, Edis wends his way through human thought patterns, evolution controversy, consciousness, fringe science, religious meaning, and morality, and lets you reach your own conclusions.

Bill Henderson (editor), 2014 Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses
The 2013 Pushcart Prize collection made a real impression on me, such that I said in my review from that quarter, last year, that I was going to have to make the series an annual tradition. The selections from 2014 are, at worst, pretty damn good. At their best, they’re amazing. I was most affected by Pam Houston’s essay on truth in nonfiction (“Corn Maze”), Sarah Lindsay’s marvelous “Origin,” Bob Hicok’s “Getting By,” and the Bill Cotter essay from The Believer, “The Gentleman’s Library, a Nowaday Redux.” I was also surprised to see my friend Davy Rothbart’s “Human Snowball,” from his entertaining collection of personal essays, My Heart Is an Idiot, as the volume’s very first offering. I hadn’t even known he’d been nominated.

Miranda July, The First Bad Man
July’s debut novel reads a bit like a contemporary, feminized Confederacy of Dunces, which is good, since it was talked up to me so much that I was afraid it might not live up to the hype. I delighted in Toole’s posthumous novel even as I rolled my eyes at its protagonist, and The First Bad Man had a similar effect.

The meek, lonely Cheryl Glickman (great name, right?) finds herself saddled with a repellent, disrespectful houseguest without actually consenting to take her in, which results in one of the strangest fictional relationships I can recall. Cheryl is kind of an everywoman, hearteningly human, a character you can’t help but cheer on. By the time it’s all said and done, July’s given us a novel that ends exactly how it should, with a satisfying inevitability.

Daniel Tiffany, Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance
Any work that takes as one of its building blocks a seventeenth-century metaphysical philosophy like Monadism, the theory that perceptions exist independently of the act of perceiving, thereby creating reality in the most literal possible meaning of that phrase, probably oughtn’t have been given this much of my time. But Tiffany’s subject was too intriguing to pass up: lyrical obscurity in poetry, and its connection with the underworld of criminals, queers, and pariahs, whose dialects and ways of seeing the world color their conversations in ways that need not be literally understood to be aesthetically pleasing.

Literary criticism is always such a dense, unwieldy, even ugly genre. I confess to not understanding all of the nuanced points Tiffany sought to make, but Infidel Poetics was hardly a slog. If nothing else, his references saw to that, such as this translated stanza from Fran├žois Villon, addressing a tavern scene peopled by a nefarious “canting crew” (known today as criminals):
Seekers after money, make-believe cripples,
Thieves too and cutpurses,
Beggars perpetually on foot
who on the road have demanded in jargon
hand-outs of food, where you’ve been
out in the fields to hunt for coins
and who, to support your girls,
have reached for bread — and handcuffs —
For all that, they make themselves feared,
the cops, crooked, tough, and cruel.
Not even academic prolixity could sap the vibrant life from verses like this.

Haruki Murakami, The Secret Library
A lovely little book with a fantastic contemporary collagelike design by Chip Kidd, the Murakami content is almost eclipsed by its packaging. But the literary surrealist’s short story, about a young man who’s taken captive by a sadistic quasi-librarian, reads like a wondrous fable of old. Read it after dinner, finish it before bed, read it again before breakfast, and savor the book’s look and feel for days afterward.