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Finding Squares

Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson (Photo: Big Think)

Recently I wrote about Richard Diebenkorn and described how deeply his work and approach to life informed my way of art making and being in the world. In that post I referenced Adam Gopnik‘s description of squareness:

Cézanne, unique among the masters, was utterly square. Diebenkorn, the perfect representative of a culture without irony, was square, too, but he managed to be square without being corny, which is a nice way of remaining classic. This unbending classical sincerity—a Cézannist quality—radiated from the man, and it was a trait that his friends most often admired and recalled.

I am drawn by this contrarian position as a way of navigating (avoiding?) a contemporary world of art that is overly fixated on the cool, the hip and terminally detached. Call me Ishmael? No, I’d rather be Square.

Maybe square is an apt code word for what matters most to me these days. And if square is my tribe, then I I can’t help looking for kinspeople. A high probability candidate is the extraordinary Marilynne Robinson, author of a new novel Lila and subject of a very thoughtful and sensitive portrait by Wyatt Mason that appeared in the New York Times Magazine this Sunday.

Admired by writers and readers for her exceptional literary gifts—she is the winner of many literary prizes for her previous novels Housekeeping, Gilead and Home—Robinson is a rather singular figure in literary circles for her unabashed devotion to Christianity (she is a sometimes Congregationalist preacher) and her passion for John Calvin. That interest permeates her novels as well as her non-fiction writing including The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays, and Mother Country.

Mason is a thoughtful writer, and in his piece for the Times he is able to portray both the delicate finesse and the fierce muscularity of Robinson’s mind. These words, elicited from her during the several days he spent with her in Iowa City, are memorable:

“One of the things that bothers me is that there are prohibitions of an unarticulated kind that are culturally felt that prevent people from actually saying what they think.”

“It’s as if when you describe something good, you are being deceived or are being deceptive.”

“Being and human beings are invested with a degree of value that we can’t honor appropriately. An overabundance that is magical.”

“A lot of people who actually believe in the sacredness of life, they write things that are horrible, desolating things. Because, for some reason, this deeper belief doesn’t turn the world…It comes down to fear; the fear of making self-revelation of the seriousness of ‘I sense a sacredness in things.’”

I am drawn deeply to Robinson’s version of squareness and her willingness to “sense a sacredness in things.” But I also resonate with the part of her that stays outside of life just a bit, a tendency to stand apart.

Mason quotes Robinson on this issue:

I have always been—always from childhood’s hour, as Poe would say—in the habit of feeling quite a stark difference between myself and the world I navigated. Which was any world I navigated. And then, at a certain point, I found out that that was a) very formative and b) probably an error, although it was that discomfort that made me feel like writing, the feeling of difference.

To the extent that I was ever an unhappy person, I was happy with my unhappiness…

People do things very differently…And it probably has to do with genes and child rearing and all sorts of things. But you can feel a distance as regrettable and at the same time take a kind of pride in it. The stalwartness of the self. That it can endure. And that even though you can kind of theoretically see how you could be more like the world that excludes you, you know that you can rely on yourself not to be…Somebody who had read ‘Lila’ asked me, “Why do you write about the problem of loneliness?” I said: “It’s not a problem. It’s a condition. It’s a passion of a kind. It’s not a problem. I think that people make it a problem by interpreting it that way.”

In that same vein, Robinson reveals a few of her concerns for constructing the inner life. She shares a teacher’s wise words, valuable advice received when she was quite young: “You have to live with your mind your whole life.” Robinson elaborates: “You build your mind, so make it into something you want to live with.”

Her devotion to building an inner landscape that is sustainably compelling and companionable 24/7 is the essence of the hermit’s creed. And with proclivities towards hermiting of my own, this is just one more reason why she feels like a cotraveler.

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Finding Wild

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A woman, alone, in the landscape (This particular one being my friend Ali Ringenburg at Deer Isle)

Two excellent books, both written by women, have the same title: Wild. Sheryl Strayed is American, and her book became an instant best seller (and soon a movie starring Reese Witherspoon.) Jay Griffiths is British, and she is not as well known to American readers. But both are gifted, informed writers who felt called—with very different intentions—to journey outside the familiar as a way of connecting with something primal in themselves. I loved both of these books.

Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (2013) is a personal narrative of walking the Pacific Crest Trail from Southern California to Washington State in 1995. She was 26, had recently lost her mother and was untethered and at odds in her life. Aside from just a few dramatic moments, not that much happens over the course of her journey. But Dwight Garner nails the spirit of the book quite adroitly when he wrote, “This book is as loose and sexy and dark as an early Lucinda Williams song. It’s got a punk spirit and makes an earthy and American sound.”

Griffiths’ Wild: An Elemental Journey (2006) is the account of a more mature and self-aware consciousness. Griffiths began her journey when she felt lost, suffering through a dark and pathless depression. “I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t write, and it felt as if I couldn’t survive the violence of my unhappiness.”

This was the calling, the vehement, irresistible demand of the feral angel—take flight. All that is wild is winged—life, mind and language—and knows the feel of air in the soaring “flight, silhouetted in the primal.”

This book was the result of many years’ yearning. A longing for something whose character I perceived only indistinctly at first but that gradually became clearer during my journeys. In looking for wildness, I was not looking for miles of landscape to be nicely photographed and neatly framed, but for the quality of wildness, which—like art, sex, love and all the other intoxicants—has a rising swing ringing through it. A drinker of wildness, I was tipsy with it before I began and roaring drunk by the end.

I was looking for the will of the wild. I was looking for how that will expressed itself in elemental vitality, in savage grace. Wildness is resolute for life: it cannot be otherwise, for it will die in captivity. It is elemental: pure freedom, pure passion, pure hunger. It is its own manifesto.

Griffiths is highly aware of the overplayed nature of the “solo journey,” negating any suggestion that she is participating in an old and hackneyed form (one that has often been the domain of Euro-American men). She is searching for something much deeper:

I wanted nothing to do with the heroics of the “solo expedition.” There was no mountain I wanted to “conquer,” no desert I wanted to be the “first woman to cross.” I simply wanted to know something of the landscapes I visited and wanted to do that by listening to what the knowers of those lands could tell me if I asked. I was exasperated (to put it mildly) by the way that so many writers in the Euro-American tradition would write reams on wilderness without asking the opinions of those who lived there, the native or indigenous people who have a different word for wilderness: home

From Intuit people in the Arctic I learned something of the intricate ice and how all landscape is knowledgscape. From whales and dolphins I learned how much we do not know, the octaves of possibilities, the maybes of the mind. From Aboriginal people in Australia i learned the belowness of things, how land is heavy with significance and how it sings…Everywhere, too, I learned of songlines, how people who know and love a land can hold it in mind as music.

Her adventures are many, with chapters that clump her journeys together under titles like Wild Earth, Wild Ice, Wild Water, Wild Fire, Wild Air, Wild Mind. Griffiths has many passages that capture a lyricism of voice that coexists alongside her harshly honest frustrations and her deep concern for the well being of our world. For example, on the sexuality of nature she writes, “To every monkey an erection; to every insect, sackfuls of eggs; … mushrooms conjugally fungal; every parrot on the squawk for it; every peccary rutting for it; every tendril internally sprung for it. Nothing unthrust.” On the topic of depression she writes that there is “no particularity, no peony, no pip, no piano, no parsley, no play.” On global warming she expounds, “Ice melts, language melts, a culture melts, a climate melts, and all the music, the songlines of ice-alive melt to the engineered unmusic, the silence of a melting world.”

Wildness has many layers, and it is a term and a state of mind that has many facets. Parallels run between these outward journeys taken by Strayed and Griffiths and the kind of experiences I often have while working in my studio (which of course is nothing like a wilderness setting.) The connection between these two concepts is more ethereal than direct, something that rings familiar even while being hard to describe in words. “The human mind developed in wilderness and needs it still,” Griffiths writes. She also includes a quote from the poet Gary Snyder that speaks even further into that commonality: “Wildness is the state of complete awareness. That’s why we need it.”

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Book S
A page from “S”

The concept of an artifact—material, touchable and therefore commodifiable—has been a controversial issue in art circles for a long time. For some practitioners, the highest and purist artistic expression is one that happens without a footprint or “residue.” The absence of a material object d’art speaks to a devotion to the experiential and a commitment to stepping away from the shackles of commodification, from the sullied commerce of buying and selling unique works, from the corruptibility of materiality.

Art without artifacts—as is often the case with installation and performance art forms—has found another permutation in the emergence of the Internet over the last 20 years. In this new arena, art forms take on a disembodied existence that lives outside of time or physicality. These new modes of expression are available 24/7, endlessly repeatable, often free or priced for mass consumption, and accessible anywhere by anyone with a digital device.

For many of us however, artifacts have a power. That power is elementally linked to materiality and the fact that a thing can possess a set of actual coordinates in the space/time continuum. Just as online sex is a something but not the same something as sex with another real human body, the concept-only art expression is not a replacement for an object-based one.

Books and publishing have also been caught up in a version of this essential tension. For some people the digitization of content eliminates their need for that physical object called a book. Others, like me, take more of a both/and stance. Digital delivery works just fine for some content. But there are also circumstances where content delivery cannot be satisfactorialy digitized. Art books, like the catalogue raisonné, are better when delivered by way of an object in the hand. So is content that invites—and deserves—a conversation with the reader in the form of margin notes and commentary.

The latest book object that could never be experienced in digital form is the product of a mind not usually equated with artifact-driven art: J. J. Abrams, the famous (and at times controversial) genius behind Alias, Lost and Fringe among many other television series. Written by Abrams and writer Doug Dorst, the book S was “born out of an idea of a love story and the notion of celebrating the book as an object,” Abrams said. “In a digital age, it’s a distinctly analog object. It felt romantic to me.”

Of course Abrams never does anything old school, and S is not a traditional romance. Nor is it a normal book. Rendered with extraordinary detail to resemble a well worn library volume of a novel called Ship of Theseus by V. M. Straka published in 1949, the bookness of the project takes on a completely different form. The author and the novel are fictional creations, as is the complex and engaging artifact that uses a book format to deliver something much more multi-layered. Marginal notes are scribbled on every page in two distinct handwriting styles. Slipped into the pages throughout are tokens of the extracurricular ephemera from the lives of these two readers—handwritten letters, postcards, old photographs, newspaper clippings, a map scrawled on a coffee shop napkin. The authenticity and attention to detail is breathtaking.

The annotators are one Jen and Eric, two students who are fascinated with Straka and the novel. As the reading progresses we watch them fall sweetly in love. But the joy of this book, amazingly, does not require a linear reading of the multi-threaded narratives. At Thanksgiving this year we had guests from Greece, Italy, Venezuela, Norway and Israel. Everyone, regardless of English language skills, was fascinated with S. This is an experience that is enchanting to everyone. And it comes because you can hold it in your hands.

The universality of appeal reminds me of Sleep No More, the theatrical production by Punchdrunk that was staged in Boston and then New York. In this full immersion production, the audience is pulled into an alternative realm, one that is full of magic and evocation. (The root theme is Macbeth and so the leitmotifs include witchcraft, murder, brooding Scotland castles and madness.) While this production requires the complete conquest of an entire building, every room is painstakingly constructed to create a richly detailed, deliciously visual staging that each member of the audience can interact with at her own pace. As large scale as the theatrical intent of Sleep No More is, the stunning attention to detail is what has stayed with me years later. Meticulous recreations make it easier for the mind to let go of its predetermined sense of the world and ease into saying, this is real.

Abrams has shown his mastery of puzzles, mystery, and creating a believable other reality in TV and cinema. That he turned those energies to a book project of this scope is thrilling to book lovers like me. What a celebration of books, reading, publishing, invention and yes, artifactness.

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Solnitessence

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Vascular bundle of a fern rhizome (Image from a fascinating website, Urbagram which addresses a set of interlinked concepts, models, speculations, probings, essays and artefacts based on urban systems.)

I first encountered Rebecca Solnit quite by accident. About ten years ago I was making my usual pilgrimage to the lusciously overstuffed and highly iconic City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco when As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art fell off the shelf and into my hands. I knew nothing about Solnit, and her bio was not the academic-centric one so typical for an art critic. But I read Eve on the plane heading back to Boston and fell under its spell. I have been an unwavering fan of everything Solnit has written ever since.

Solnit is a woman of strong opinions and a fiery intelligence—one friend described a dinner party where she was a guest as harrowingly intense—but what makes her a not quite companionable party guest is also what drives her compelling work. Her interests are far ranging, from politics to art to urbanism to disaster to illness. But in every case her approach to a topic is a rich tapestry of interwovenness, full of unexpected turns and an idiosyncratic take on the facts. She is not a writer that will appeal to linear thinkers who like an arboreal structure to thought. David Ulin wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “That’s classic Solnit, to take what sounds like conventional wisdom and reframe it on her own terms…She is what used to be known as a public intellectual, an essayist defined by her ability to connect the dots between seemingly disparate ideas.”

The dot connecting is even more masterful in her most recent book, The Faraway Nearby. This very personal volume begins with the arrival of an oversized box of ripe apricots picked from her mother’s tree. It is from that unexpected starting place that Solnit finds a way to tie those apricots to so many stories and realities, the public as well as the private.

One of the many themes she circles around repeatedly is storytelling itself. “The fruit on my floor made me start to read fairy tales again. They are full of overwhelming piles and heaps that need to be contended with.” The assignment to sort, so common in myths and folktales, elicits these wise insights from Solnit:

Such tasks are always the obstacles to becoming, to being set free, or finding love. Carrying out the tasks undoes the curse. Enchantment in these stories is the state of being disguised, displaced in an animal’s body or another’s identity. Disenchantment is the blessing of becoming yourself…

Fairy tales are about trouble, about getting into it and out of it, and trouble seems to be a necessary stage on the route of becoming…Fairy tales are almost always the stories of the powerless, of the youngest sons, abandoned children…Fairy tales are children’s stories not in who they were made for but in their focus on the early stages of life, when others have power over you and you have power over no one. In them, power is rarely the right tool for survival anyway. Rather the powerless thrive on alliances, often in the form of reciprocated acts of kindess.

Solnit’s method of sorting through life’s mysteries and seeing connections everywhere—a style I often refer to as the “e) all of the above” approach—is one that I feel completely at home with. She is a good example of a rhizomatic thinker (as articulated by the works of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari) and her skill just keeps getting better.

Her work brings to mind the towering figure of another brilliant and self-styled thinker/writer, Susan Sontag. Solnit wrote a tribute about Sontag in 2005 just after she passed away, and her words about Sontag could apply to her own work as well:

One of the things to be appreciated about Sontag, I think, is that she considered everything a proper occasion for more thinking, more analyzing, more writing…one of the things clear through all her work is that she was not interested merely in writing, but in tending and cultivating a literature-based public sphere in which ideas and principles mattered. It was a romantic idea, but not an unrealistic one—since, after all, she realized it.

Sontag and Solnit are fierce. And we all know that fierceness in a woman is greeted differently in the world than fierceness in a man. Why that is so is an endless discussion and not one I am entering into today. But part of the power of both of these writers is their unswerving devotion to doing it and saying it their own way. And if it were possible to name the primary theme underlying seven years’ worth of posts on Slow Muse, it would be just that.

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Bookshelf
My favorite library belongs to my friends Andrew and Kathryn: Color coded throughout the house.

This week I have been inundated with references to a piece by Ian Crouch, The Curse of Reading and Forgetting, on Facebook, Twitter and in my email. Bullseye. This is what perfect targeting looks like, exactly the kind of tailored fit hoped for by marketers who mistakenly fill the margins of my online life with ads for things I will never want, like ecards and glitzy handbags.

Crouch exposes the brutal truth about how much of what we read we forget. Erudite and articulate, he admits to the same deep forgetfulness about books that I have thought best to keep hidden, like a tragic family secret.

This is such a painful state of affairs, and my awareness of this sorry reality has been even more intense of late as I have been reading through the nearly 1300 posts that have appeared here on Slow Muse since it began in 2006. My claim of being a Nowist (a term I borrowed from the MIT Media Lab’s Joi Ito and written about here) may just be a default position rather than a choice.

From Crouch’s piece:

Looking at my bookshelves…the spines look familiar; the names and titles bring to mind perhaps a character name, a turn of plot, often just a mood or feeling—but for the most part, the assembled books, and the hundreds of others that I’ve read and discarded, given away, or returned to libraries, represent a vast catalogue of forgetting…

Reading has many facets, one of which might be the rather indescribable, and naturally fleeting, mix of thought and emotion and sensory manipulations that happen in the moment and then fade. How much of reading, then, is just a kind of narcissism—a marker of who you were and what you were thinking when you encountered a text? Perhaps thinking of that book later, a trace of whatever admixture moved you while reading it will spark out of the brain’s dark places.

Crouch asks himself if perhaps he doesn’t really like reading after all. Or even more frightening, he wonders whether he is actually quite bad at reading altogether.

But he ends his article with a proposed program of self improvement:

A simple remedy to forgetfulness is to read novels more than once…Part of my suspicion of rereading may come from a false sense of reading as conquest. As we polish off some classic text, we may pause a moment to think of ourselves, spear aloft, standing with one foot up on the flank of the slain beast. Another monster bagged. It would be somehow less heroic, as it were, to bend over and check the thing’s pulse. But that, of course, is the stuff of reading—the going back, the poring over, the act of committing something from the experience, whether it be mood or fact, to memory. It is in the postmortem where we learn how a book really works. Maybe, then, for a forgetful reader like me, the great task, and the greatest enjoyment, would be to read a single novel over and over again. At some point, then, I would truly and honestly know it.

While rereading is a good thing, like a high fiber diet, I had a slightly different take on the same data. Given how little I remember, I have to ask just why it is I love reading so completely. What is it that happens in that moment that feels like a opiate surge, the sure hit at the pleasure centers somewhere in my consciousness that produces a titillation, an enthrallment, a state of rapture unlike any other?

It just may be that reading is my drug of choice, and not remembering each adventure is less important than the rhapsody that happens in the moment. I am still pondering if that is true, and if it is, what that might mean.

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Zadie Smith

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We all have our heros, and Zadie Smith is one of mine. After reading her first novel, White Teeth (written at the age of 22 no less) in 2000, I was hooked.

So of course I was in one of the front rows of very full auditorium at the MFA on Thursday night to hear her speak. Very pregnant but still her gracefully statuesque self, Smith’s lecture was titled Why Write? She said her thoughts on that topic were written as a lecture for her students at NYU. But her wisdom is ageless and timely for all of us—including creatives in other fields—and at no point is she telling anyone what to do or how to do it. “I hate the patronizing of the young,” she said at some point. That attitude, combined with her spectacularly clear intelligence, talent and presence, would suggest that she is a gifted teacher as well.

The spirit of her thinking is captured in her list of 10 rules for writers published in The Guardian last year. It is so Zadie Smith—straightforward, thoughtful, poetic, and never condescending.

1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.

2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.

3. Don’t romanticise your ‘vocation’. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle’. All that matters is what you leave on the page.

4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.

5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.

6. Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.

7. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.

8. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.

9. Don’t confuse honours with achievement.

10. Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand—but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.

A few other comments she shared on Thursday night stood out for me. She sees us entering a new era that redefines the relationship between the writer and the reader. She like writing essays because the goal is to be as clear as possible. “Novels, on the other hand, are a messier prospect.” While she was raised with the “western canon” during her education in the U.K., she doesn’t believe it is a viable concept anymore.

These phrases also stood out for me:

“Writing is my way of achieving radical ambiguity.”
“Disperse yourself in language.”
White Teeth—That’s juvenilia to me now.”

When asked which authors influence her, she said her husband (Nick Laird) is the first to read what she writes because “he is in the house after all” (this was not delivered with a dismissive tone, just practical.) The only other writer she mentioned by name whose work she loves was George Saunders*. When she said his name I had to smile: There I sat, in the Remis Auditorium, listening to Zadie Smith, with Saunders’ latest book, The Tenth of December, on my lap. But then again, of course. I have a connection with her that runs deeper than a book or two.

_________
*My recent blog post about Saunders can be read here.

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George Saunders (Photo:Damon Winter/The New York Times)

Joel Lovell has written the cover article for the Sunday New York Times Magazine about the writer George Saunders. Much more than just a portrait of Saunders—which is reason enough, certainly—Lovell’s article is full of interstitial wisdom, a handfull of small but meaningful vignettes, and a respectful generosity of spirit in bringing the personal to bear.

Lovell seems to have a singular gift for connecting with a particular kind of artist/writer. Best exemplified by the iconic work of David Foster Wallace, these are creatives who do their work while carrying a fully loaded viewfinder of how life is being lived in this complex, paradoxical, unjust and baffling world. To create while holding that burdensome reality is taxing and exhausting. It is also at the opposite end of the spectrum from the intentional isolation I seek in my studio. But I have great respect (and frankly, awe) for anyone who can hold that position. It produces work with a deep moral center that has the gravitational weight to hold the heavy, harsher truths as well as those fleeting bosons of redemption.

Saunders is such a writer, and so is Kenny Lonergan who Lovell also wrote about here in the Times Magazine a few months ago. Lovell has an unselfconscious ease with these kinds of people. That Saunders is a practicing Buddhist is mentioned in passing, but Saunders’ Buddhist detachment—deep caring about the world but not attached—is respectfully represented in this portrait.

Here are a few passages from the piece on Saunders that capture some of that quality.

Saunders shares his experience of being on a commercial flight when a serious malfunction had everyone on board sure that a crash was inevitable.

“For three or four days after that,” [Saunders] said, “it was the most beautiful world. To have gotten back in it, you know? And I thought, If you could walk around like that all the time, to really have that awareness that it’s actually going to end. That’s the trick.”

You could call this desire — to really have that awareness, to be as open as possible, all the time, to beauty and cruelty and stupid human fallibility and unexpected grace — the George Saunders Experiment. It’s the trope of all tropes to say that a writer is “the writer for our time.” Still, if we were to define “our time” as a historical moment in which the country we live in is dropping bombs on people about whose lives we have the most abstracted and unnuanced ideas, and who have the most distorted notions of ours; or a time in which some of us are desperate simply for a job that would lead to the ability to purchase a few things that would make our kids happy and result in an uptick in self- and family esteem; or even just a time when a portion of the population occasionally feels scared out of its wits for reasons that are hard to name, or overcome with emotion when we see our children asleep, or happy when we risk revealing ourselves to someone and they respond with kindness — if we define “our time” in these ways, then George Saunders is the writer for our time.

This is an elegiac yet painful description of real life:

“I saw the peculiar way America creeps up on you if you don’t have anything,” he told me. “It’s never rude. It’s just, Yes, you do have to work 14 hours. And yes, you do have to ride the bus home. You’re now the father of two and you will work in that cubicle or you will be dishonored. Suddenly the universe was laden with moral import, and I could intensely feel the limits of my own power. We didn’t have the money, and I could see that in order for me to get this much money, I would have to work for this many more years. It was all laid out in front of me, and suddenly absurdism wasn’t an intellectual abstraction, it was actually realism. You could see the way that wealth was begetting wealth, wealth was begetting comfort — and that the cumulative effect of an absence of wealth was the erosion of grace.”

And lastly, this metaphor for art making which I found so memorable:

“I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters,” Saunders wrote in an essay on Vonnegut. “He enters in one state of mind and exits in another. The writer gets no points just because what’s inside the box bears some linear resemblance to ‘real life’ — he can put whatever he wants in there. What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit. . . . In fact, ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ seemed to be saying that our most profound experiences may require this artistic uncoupling from the actual. The black box is meant to change us. If the change will be greater via the use of invented, absurd material, so be it.”

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The artist seeks contact with his intuitive sense of the gods, but in order to create his work, he cannot stay in this seductive and incorporeal realm. He must return to the material world in order to do his work. It’s the artist’s responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation. I left Mephistopheles, the angels, and the remnants of our handmade world, saying, I choose Earth.

—Patti Smith, from Just Kids

I came of age in New York City about the time Patti Smith was catapulted into notoriety and fame in the 1970s. A skinny young woman whose proto-grunge, anti-glam stance was the perfect compliment to her deeply personal, unvarnished music, Smith’s music and presence was a straight hit to my heart. She was a frequent downtown presence back then, but she never seemed to be tainted by the disabling toxicity of celebritism. She has been a special kind of hero for me all these years.

I finally found the time to begin reading her much lauded book (winner of the National Book Award last year) when I fell upon the perfect blog post to accompany my read. Luke Storms, one of my favorite online cohorts, writes the site Intense City. His thinking is eclectic, unexpected, honest, thoughtfully structured, well informed and yet humble (a quality I admire more than most.) So if Smith’s memoir is just one of many interests for you, stop in and spend some time. WWTR—well worth the read.

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A moment of light revelry in the Dale Chihuly exhibit at the MFA, Boston

This following is an excerpt from an old (1997) Atlantic interview with Charles Baxter whose recently released collection of short stories is called Gryphon:

Atlantic: In your essay “Against Epiphanies” you argue that a “character’s experiences in a story [don't] have to be validated by a conclusive insight or brilliant visionary stop-time moment” and go on to assert that “radiance, after a while, gets routine.” Yet the characters in your short stories often do experience moments of startling revelation — and, in fact, many critics identify your graceful use of epiphanies as one of your unique talents. How do you reconcile the thoughts expressed in your essay with instances of revelation in your fiction?

Baxter: I can’t reconcile them. Or maybe I’m like Huck Finn’s father, who has perfected his denunciation of alcohol during the day and his back-alley binges at night. I disapprove of epiphanies and their phony auras but I am besotted by them—can’t get enough of them in life or elsewhere…Seriously though, as a person who was brought up with religious faith and then got out of it, I’m always looking for secular manifestations of the sacred. At the same time I know that when these moments are arranged—particularly at the end of short stories—they acquire an absolutely formulaic quality…If you’re trying to write a story with a beginning, middle, and end but haven’t found a way of tying it up dramatically, an epiphany will do the job. But it often ends up feeling like a shortcut, and besides, as I wrote in the essay, I’ve had so god-damned few epiphanies in my life that I’m suspicious of them. And most of them have been wrong anyway!

I am taken in by the dilemma he describes—disapproving of epiphanies but besotted by them nonetheless. And even though he is focused on fiction forms (he teaches creative writing to MFA students), there are parallels that exist in other art forms as well.

I was also engaged by his description of his proclivities: “As a person who was brought up with religious faith and then got out of it, I’m always looking for secular manifestations of the sacred.” That is an impulse I know well.

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East First Street in South Boston on Monday morning (my studio is on the right)


Ice lace on my studio wall

The highlight of that infamous genre, The Christmas Letter (which is, let’s face it, a mixed bag) for me is the yearly book recommendations that arrive from my long time friends Mary Pat and Michael. Both are intelligent and thoughtful readers, and their recommendations provide a reliable compass for my book stack. (Michael is a professor of literature at College of New Jersey and author of Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples, and Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature.

Here are their recommendations from 2010. And with a storm like the one we have had here in Boston, curling up with a great book is the most appropriate response. These all sound delicious to me.

Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed

Okay, so we’re a little late in our discovery of this novel, which was published in 1974. But it’s the most powerful book we’ve read in years. The Dispossessed is science fiction, but that’s like saying Moby-Dick is a fishing book. This novel set on an earth-like planet and its moon is as profound a meditation on democracy as the Declaration of Independence; it’s about the challenges of building a more just and equal society. Plus, it’s a terrific read, with spaceships and aliens and sex.

David Malouf, Ransom

You may remember the episode in The Iliad when Priam leaves Troy at night, steals into the Greek camp, and begs Achilles for his son Hector’s body. Out of these few lines from Homer, Malouf, an Australian poet, has spun a brief, beautiful, perfect book.

Ian McEwan, Solar

Michael Beard, the protagonist of this new novel by one of our favorite writers, is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and a complete scoundrel. Reading about his downfall, we kept laughing out loud. We bet that you will too.

Lynn Powell, Framing Innocence: A Mother’s Photographs, a Prosecutor’s Zeal, and a Small Town’s Response

Powell, a prize-winning poet, lives in the college town of Oberlin, Ohio. Ten years ago, her friend and neighbor Cynthia Stewart was led out of the house in handcuffs, charged with child pornography for having taking pictures of her daughter in the bathtub. This terrific legal thriller is both scary (there’s a this-could-happen-to-anybody feel to the story) and uplifting (the community’s defense of Cynthia, a much-loved schoolbus driver, is very moving). This year’s if-you-read-only-one-book pick.

Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story

The latest novel by this brilliant satirist is set in the dystopian near future, in a New York City filled with the callous rich and the desperate poor, a world of casual sex and shallow connections, where young people obsessively check their mobile devices instead of actually, like, talking with one another. Witty and deeply disturbing.

And as a postscript: Michael emailed me the following addition to his list which I include here as well:

Since writing them, Mary Pat and I have discovered our new Favorite Author: David Mitchell. I’ve only read Cloud Atlas, which is generally held to be his masterpiece. It’s simply one of the best novels I’ve ever read. I have to get Number Nine Dream, and I want to listen to his new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, on CD. Mary Pat is currently reading Black Swan Green, which she says is terrific; as soon as she’s done, I’ll begin it.

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