We have a new Monthly Book Report coming out on Monday! If you haven’t already subscribed, today is the day. You don’t want to miss our roundup of the stellar fiction, nonfiction, and poetry reviews that went up on the site this past month—plus, we throw in a Rumpus Original Fiction story for good measure. Sign up now!
Saturday 10/3: J. Mae Barizo, Laurel Blossom, Patrick Ryan Frank, Rebecca Okrent, and Jonathan Wells present books from Four Way Press, along with Britt Melewski, curator of the FREE WATER series. KGB, 7 p.m., free.
Bruce Andrews and Sharon Mesmer launch the latest season of the Segue Series. Zinc Bar, 4:30 p.m., $5.
The West for me is a haunted place. There are these mythic ghosts everywhere you go. I don’t know of a region that buys its own bullshit more so than the American West does.
Over at Lit Hub, Robert Hahn finds homage to the voice of Nick Carraway in the fiction of Donna Tartt, Lorrie Moore, and Richard Ford, and discusses the lasting allure and the divisiveness of The Great Gatsby:
There is a solution to the mystery of Gatsby’s lasting fame, as believers know, and to my mind that solution is voice. The elixir that transforms the novel’s inert matter into music—that turns its static iconography into poetry—is its first-person narration: the subtle, compounded, compromised voice of Nick Carraway. A voice of hope infused with despair, of belief corroded by doubt. A voice suave and dapper on its surface but roiled and dark in its depths. It is the inviting but evasive voice of a new best friend who draws you into his confidence and promises alluring secrets, only to turn away from you, agitated, distracted, and weary.
Just in time for back-to-school season, Ploughshares has this list of some of the most memorable teachers in literature.
Former R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck has announced a new solo record, Warzone Earth, coming out exclusively on vinyl this October 16th from Little Axe Records. Buck announced Warzone Earth on the official R.E.M. website, calling it “the best solo album I have made.” According to Stereogum, the cover art will be designed by folk art legend Mingering Mike, and will feature Scott McCaughey, Bill Rieflin, Kurt Bloch, Chris Slusarenko, Krist Novoselic, Jeff Tweedy, Annalisa Tornfelt, Chloe Johnson, and Kristin Tornfelt. Watch a young Buck perform “Gardening at Night” with R.E.M. after the jump.
On Thursday, Guernica’s October issue went live with a fantastical tale of childhood by Sofi Stambo. “A Bunch of Savages,” which was chosen by Aimee Bender to win the Disquiet International Literary Program Award in fiction, follows a maybe gypsy, definitely poor family in Stambo’s native Bulgaria during communism. Poverty is apparent in the story, present in the neighbor lady’s cart of cardboard to recycle, in the constant lice and tick infestations on the children and family dog, but it isn’t dwelled upon. Instead, the story is full of whimsy, unexpected humor, and love.
Narrated through a child’s eyes—the eldest of the family’s three children—ordinary occurrences gain magical significance and folk tales are taken literally. (more…)
Over at The Nervous Breakdown, Elise Sherman explores her literary roots in a self interview that touches on the South, her neo-Faulknerian tendencies, and the difference between New Orleans and the rest of the world.
Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake aside, it’s hard to imagine a more mutualistic artist-writer pair than Robert Kloss and Matt Kish. (The Rumpus also recommends the duo of Casey Scieszka and Steven Weinberg.) Kloss and Kish (who also illustrated every page of Moby Dick) have never met, but they still manage to talk about landscapes conducive to writing myths, their new book The Revelator, and the formidable undertaking of reading all of Melville’s writing.
Friday 10/2: Malena Mörling and Jonas Ellerström read in English and Swedish from The Star By My Head: Poets from Sweden. Presented with Milkweed Editions, the Swedish American Museum, and the Swedish Arts Council at the Poetry Foundation, 7 p.m.
This is the way the world ends: not with a bang but a bronchial spasm.
For the Public Domain Review, Brett Beasley examines Delisle Hay’s The Doom of the Great City, widely considered to be the first science fiction novel about an urban apocalypse.
At the Atlantic, David R. Wheeler examines recent attempts to limit freedom of the press on college campuses, tracking conflicts between university officials and college newspapers and court cases:
In 2005, students at Governors State University in Illinois lost a lawsuit claiming that their First Amendment rights had been violated over the censorship of the school newspaper, The Innovator. Staffers had written articles critical of the administration, and in response, the dean of students, Patricia Carter, literally stopped the presses. The Seventh Circuit court ruled in her favor.
Juan Filipe Herrera is the current United States Poet Laureate and his newest collection is his thirtieth book, though not all his books are poetry. This collection, Notes on the Assemblage, has a cover that is a montage, gray, white and black with the central shapes something of a Rorshach test. In the upper right is an image of a book on which are the words “This Is the Soap Box.” This direct and effective . He has been more subtle in his earlier collections, and also just as understandably pained and angered by subjects he has long chosen and continues to choose.
His influences are wide and he wants you to know about them, in part, he often suggests, because knowledge enhances song and that message can get lost in superficial popular culture. So the book opens with two short epigraphs, one by Marvin Bell, who is respected in established poetry circles, and one by Violeta Para, a legendary Chilean folk musician who brought traditions of her country’s rural life to its cities, and whose artwork was exhibited at the Louvre.
Both examples point toward a deliberate, acute way of looking and responding, which is, of course, what Herrera participates in and what he wants the reader to join him in. He makes it manageable, without every making it seem slight or too easy. “It Can Begin With Clouds,” is the first poem in the book, and it is a fine opener :
it can begin with clouds how they fray how they enter
then how they envelope the earth
in a second or two they vanish you
touch them they take you you find yourself in their absence
sometimes you read them somehow
the separation the losses the sky yes
it is the sky they were talking about the character for sky
you are there now
you have always been there now
where there is fire and
thunder-face behind the torn universe you can see this
how its shreds itself so you can see this that
is all there is then
nothing again then you again and the clouds
come to you and you pass.
He has captured here on the page with words what is both tangible and ephemeral, the exquisite and the political, and he has accomplished the difficult feat of not being trite under the circumstances. He has done it with grace and with spacing that sets a visual pace that provides perfect scaffolding. I am working from galley proofs and keep thinking I could be pondering a fine painting on an easel that is ready to go, to be framed and hung.
I am looking at a composition that makes me think—as it surely must, with its “torn universe, ” of the fact that Herrera will soon occupy an office in the Library of Congress, an institution founded by Thomas Jefferson, who as a slaveholder participated in a terrible tearing of the universe even as he reaped credit for helping some men free themselves from England. One can’t read Herrera without facing these associations. This poetry should be read many times, to go as far beyond surface as possible.
It is unclear why some poems in this collection are printed in Spanish and English and others are not. There is devastating music in his piece about murdered Mexican students, and that music is totally appropriate, as the excerpts below display :
From Ayotzinapa we were headed to Iguala to say to the
mayor that we wanted funds for our rural school for teachers
Ibamos de Ayotzinapa hacia Iguala para decitle al alcalde que
queriamos fondos para muestra escuela rural para maestros y
Two kinds of stateliness are at work . The English declarations sound crisp. In Spanish there is an almost tender sound. But all the lines in English and in Spanish have muscularity, heartbreaking inevitability so that when we learn that the students have been murdered for their act of citizenship–as we know students have been around the world, for generations– we are in the company of a truth that has been named to perfection.
Later in this book, in a section called “lucid and undecipherable tasks,’’ in a poem that shares the title, Herrera further proves his versatility with a sensuous composition, the kind a reader might want to memorize and whisper late at night to a loved one :
& I leaned
against rock it was the storm
i lay there opened
upon the stones and ferns against the leaves that spoke
and held my flesh the trees
the red-shouldered hawk it was the eagle
it caressed my face held it up to the lightning beaks of night
the infinite the eye the void
lucid and undecipherable tasks all things
become one it was my breath upon you
breath alone and full free and still
revealed by the moon and the moon the wild sickle swan
and I ascended
through the fire.
How many ways can we say gorgeous and transcendent? How many lines can be broken just right, the way two people who treasure each others’ bodies know that their skin, like sky and cloud, can be appreciated without being fully deciphered ? The task is right in front of us, and Herrera reminds us not to fear the necessary fire.
Herrera hops around a bit, suggesting he’s never far from his desire to apprehend and consume what visual artists create. “in the mid of midnight”, also bilingual, takes us to Carrara, where Michelangelo got marble. I, too, have made a pilgrimage there, and know that stone in that village speaks to idealized, monumental art, to brutal labor practices and political history, and to contemporary creative longing.
let us go to Carrara to sing to the Count of Sulfurs and ciphers and reefs
vamos a Carrara a contarle al conde de azufres y de cifras y arrecifes
“let us go” has been appropriately expropriated from T. S. Eliot. In this powerful, beautiful collection, the waters part. Enter.
The English tend to be reserved, reticent, but Shakespeare flows like a great river, he abounds in hyperbole and metaphor—he’s the complete opposite of an English person. Or, in Goethe’s case, we have the Germans who are easily roused to fanaticism but Goethe turns out to be the very opposite—a tolerant man… It’s as if each country looks for a form of antidote in the author it chooses.
Read more (including the most important book for a “leisurely, curious man” to read) in the conversations between Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari, originally recorded in 1984, now translated into English for the first time.
And you may ask yourself, what DO crows understand about death?
The future is all bamboo pavilions as far as the eye can see.
Now let’s end for the week with some thoughts on how totally awful the end of the dinosaurs probably was.
With the rise of adult coloring books on bestseller lists comes an interesting intersection between the artists who create the books and the consumers who color them. Over at The Toast, Katherine Cusumano makes the case for the coloring book as a unique collaborative medium, a means to allow the everyman to engage with art actively:
The coloring book assumes that visual art is open-ended and incomplete. The raw material — the blank book — is the same across all individuals, but the output will never be the same…Coloring books can also allow audiences to interrogate what, exactly, defines “a serious artist.”
NPR presents the art, science, and history of the book blurb.
Colin Dickey writes for Hazlitt about the practice of covering mirrors after a death:
There seems to be no universal reason behind the custom. Reginald Fleming Johnston, documenting this practice in China in 1910, claimed that the reason mirrors are covered is because “if the dead man happens to notice a reflection of himself in the glass he will be much horrified to find that he has become a ghost, and much disappointed with his own appearance as such.” Johnston also notes that for some, there is a belief that “every mirror has a mysterious faculty of invisibly retaining and storing up everything that is reflected on its surface, and that if anything so ill-omened as a corpse or a ghost were to pass before it, the mirror would thenceforth become a permanent radiator of bad luck.”
Kendrick Lamar is collaborating with a symphony orchestra for the first time in preparation for his October 20th performance at The Kennedy Center, according to the Washington Post. The performance will feature songs off of the rapper’s sophomore record, To Pimp a Butterfly, and will be a one-off show—meaning tickets will go quick. Read more about the details via The Kennedy Center and watch the video for the album’s song “King Kunta” after the jump.
Of course, there’s no way to pierce the heart and mind of a reader except with a razor sharp slice of the singular. Maybe fiction and identity politics have this in common. We can only achieve kinesthetic, flesh-and-blood understanding with palpable, enumerated specificity.
How does a writer who’d started a novel involving gender and identity politics more than a decade ago incorporate the new transparency in social progress as outspoken figureheads like Caitlyn Jenner move to the forefront of cultural consciousness? Over at Lit Hub, Rachel Basch reflects on how witnessing social progress in real time affects her processing of the truths in her fiction.
In their continued quest to conquer the world, Amazon has quietly launched a new program, called Amazon Flex, which hires contract delivery drivers on demand, much like Über. Read more over at WIRED.
Thursday 10/1: Robert Michael Pyle reads from his latest book Wintergreen: Rambles in a Ravaged Land and is then joined in conversation by David Guterson, author of Snow Falling on Cedars. Powell’s at Cedar Hills Crossing, 7 p.m., free.
The local Dawn Menken will read from her book Raising Parents, Raising Kids, discuss process-oriented psychology, and sign books. Another Read Through, 7 p.m., free.
Cartoonist Ted Rall delves into the the life of whistleblower Edward Snowden in his latest graphic novel, Snowden. Powell’s on Hawthorne, 7:30 p.m., free.
Sam John Hopkins wasn’t known as “Lightnin'” until a music executive heard him play in a recording session in 1946. Ever since then, Hopkins’s gutsy vocals and impressive blues guitar helped him live up to his name. His “Jailhouse Blues” summons the image of a small, rural prison. The blues man’s deep bass demands our attention like rolling thunder, as he pleads:
Will you please sir bring me the key
I just want you to open the door
‘Cause this ain’t no place for me”
Over at The Millions, author Christopher J. Yates discusses his affinity for crossword puzzles and how it affects his use of language in his writing:
It feels to me that staring at the blank page is a lot like staring at a blank crossword grid. When I make up a crossword, I have, say, a theme and 10 or a dozen answers that I want to place in the grid. And when I set out to write a novel, I have a theme and 10 or a dozen plot points or developments that I want to place in the story. And so the challenge, in both cases, becomes one of getting everything to interlock, of making everything work together, a matter of filling in the gaps in the most pleasing way possible.
The birth of the ebook has been a source of fear among literary consumers for years now, but it seem, based on current sales trends, print is making a comeback. Flavorwire puts up an argument for both, asking authors and publishers what medium they prefer, and where they think the future of books is headed. Though, the takeaway may be just as László Krasznahorkai says, “Devices are not dangerous for literature… People can be dangerous for literature. People, for example, who don’t read.”
Just about the time I was starting to read Sven Birkerts’s book of critical essays about digital technology and concentration, Changing the Subject, I scanned a Facebook post from Alexander Chee, a novelist and active social media user. He noted that his friend had lost his phone and ended up starting a novel:
A friend lost his phone for six days and on the fourth day an entire novel came to him. He started it, and has 7000 words. He’s a writer but has never written a novel before and hasn’t written fiction in years.
The post resulted in a stream of comments, most suggesting that we should all give up our smart phones, but only if we all do it at the exact same time, so, as one commenter put it, he wouldn’t have to miss any funny tweets.
High-tech gadgets have taken over most of our lives. Even people who love their phones whole-heartedly admit that they spend an incredible amount of time on them. But is that a bad thing? Not just the phones, but all our digital technologies? Wouldn’t we be better off putting it all aside, slowing down a little, and starting the novel that’s alive inside us, buried by all the digital distraction?
Writers, whose work relies on extended concentration, are one of the groups most impacted by all this digital detritus. Surely we all know someone who has chosen not to give herself over to the digital life, but I’ve been surprised by how strongly writers (at least on Twitter and other online venues, which of course is a biased sample) have been apologists for the new way of doing things. Whenever a writer like Jonathan Franzen says something critical about digital life, writers, not techies, are the ones complaining.
With all their anxiety about being left behind by a culture more interested in video games and internet memes than books, writers have often become champions of digital culture. Are we digging our own graves?
In Changing the Subject, Birkerts examines our anxiety about digital technologies, with close attention paid to their effects on literary life and culture. He doesn’t own a cell phone (much to his daughter’s dismay), but he does use email and reads websites like The Huffington Post. Which is to say, he’s not as far down the rabbit hole as many of the rest of us, but he’s implicated enough.
The cell phone bit gives you a sense of Birkerts’s perspective on tech in general:
Why don’t I hurry to buy a cell phone? Maybe also because I don’t want the edges rubbed away from the idea of contact. I want to keep an understanding of distance that has some relation to geography and obstacle. Not only do I not desire to be ever-accessible, but I also don’t wish to think I have ready access. I am not ready to hand myself over to 24/7—that most chilling pair of numbers.
But why not? Everyone’s available 24/7, his daughter might say. For someone raised on the internet and cell phones, life has always been about accessibility, even if that means constant interruption.
Birkerts says our ability to concentrate is diminishing. He refers to studies that have demonstrated this, though his method is not science reporting. He is an old-school essayist. He makes observations about his life and the lives of people around him. He refers to literature. He makes his way by association.
Birkerts’ real worry is about the diminishment of what he calls the “subjective individual.” Smart phones and the internet may take time away from reading, which is a bummer for readers and writers, but Birkerts sees the networks that the internet forms as a challenge to our individuality. “Modern living finds us enmeshed in systems that we think we require, that require us, from which it is every day more difficult to extricate ourselves,” he writes in “On or About”, the first essay in the collection.
A person cannot stand against such systems for long. Imagine trying to get a job if you’ve chosen not to use the internet. “We have shifted from an idea of self-sufficiency to one of dependence on complexly interlocked systems,” Birkerts notes, after re-reading Emerson’s Self-Reliance. And a little earlier, when thinking about Wikipedia:
But for those foot draggers among us who worry about the fate of the individual, the idea of the individual—who get stuck on the adjective human in human progress and who believe systems and selves to be opposing terms—it can be seen as a further migration toward the groupthink ethos.
While I’m sympathetic to much of what Birkerts has to say in Changing the Subject, I’m not sold that our biggest concern should be the loss of individuality. Tech may be making us more reliant on collective thinking, but it’s also giving rise to extreme forms of individuality. We may be part of multiple complex systems, but, just as often, we are isolated individuals ordering takeout by app while watching Neflix alone in our apartments.
In his defense of individuality, Birkerts either doesn’t see the process of social isolation happening or isn’t much concerned, which means he misses one of the most troubling aspects of digital life. It’s entirely possible that we should be concerned with the rise of systems and with the disruption of communities. I’d like to read an essay by Birkerts on that paradox.
Birkerts’s essays are important. They may not be the last word on digital life, but his is a much-needed voice in a conversation usually dominated by tech apologists. When confronting Utopian Tech, we need writers who are willing to think critically. There’s no app for that.
In my adolescence, the only realness that held my interest was the realness leading to the first kiss — the chemistry, the overwrought conversations that seemed to ensure mutual understanding. I had not yet committed myself to anyone—I didn’t care to—though I willingly pined over someone who did not want me while anticipating future Ethan-esque romances. What was most real in love was potential, whether viable or a fantasy I stubbornly hoarded: the potential in an amorous encounter, in the emotions that engendered sexual potential in the first place. But in practice, realization of possibility meant that we had succumbed to erotic charge, not that we had embarked on a steady relationship. Too often, I shied away from a kiss because I preferred anticipation to fulfillment that I assumed would disappoint.