A library is rarely ever just a library, often evolving alongside the community it serves. The Lacuna Project is taking this idea literally by building a library made entirely of books for this year’s Bay Area Book Festival. Festival-goers will be able to remove (and keep) books without damaging the structure, whose lighting and acoustics will change in response to their collective impact. Pitch in by donating to Lacuna’s Kickstarter or helping sort books for the installation.
For T Magazine, seven authors describe the spaces where they write.
Paul Lisicky writes about those moments in our lives when we find ourselves in between:
Some people carve X’s into the skin behind their knees after a breakup. Some curse at random strangers, or fall in love with escorts or junkies or petty criminals, people as far as possible from the loved ones they’d left. In the scriptures it says that Jesus spent forty days and nights in the desert. We are expected to believe that he was tested by hunger, that he resisted the temptation to turn stone into bread, that he strode back into Jerusalem leaner, wiser, more faithful.
Road trip songs occupy a plush seat in the American canon—right underneath the fuzzy dice. They are often harbingers of summer, and “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo” is no exception. This prototypical Tribe Called Quest track from their first album features a playful and engaging narrative from standout MC, Q-Tip. Samples from the Chambers Brothers track, “Funky,” provide a thumping and appropriately frenetic backbeat. Q-Tip’s crew drives all the way from the east coast to Texas, where they stop for enchiladas and a pretty waitress distracts them at just the wrong moment.
Thursday 3/26: The ACRL Zine Pavillion is your chance to read a zine, make a zine, talk to librarians who use zines for teaching and outreach, edit ZineWiki.com, and buy zines from local zinesters. Oh, and make sure to add a page to our collaborative conference zine. Oregon Convention Center, 9 a.m.–4 p.m., free, open Friday as well.
Three-time spoken word world champion Buddy Wakefield stops in Portland on his Riled Up and Wasted on Light World Tour. Holocene, 6:30 p.m., $10.
Jacob Rubin reads from his debut novel, The Poser, on impression, magic, and mimicry. Powell’s on Hawthorne, 7:30 p.m., free.
At The Millions, Elizabeth Minkel shares her take on fanfiction and its place within the classroom.
So where does this leave us? I think back to “The Woman Question.” I have (most days) not felt the need to leave my husband and children in order to safeguard my sanity, so that is progress of a sort, I concede. But what about the dichotomy I once posed for my students: heir-producing arm candy or low wage factory girl, which would you choose? In some ways, as I shuttle between colleges, my children’s school and various cobbled-together childcare options, I seem to have chosen both.
T. Geronimo Johnson’s first novel Hold It Til It Hurts is one of the best books I’ve read recently. It’s a visceral, somber tale of two brothers returning from military service in Afghanistan only to find more Afghanistans in their family secrets and the bombed-out ghettos of Atlanta and New Orleans. The prose is disciplined and precise, and by the time the climax swirled in the eye of Hurricane Katrina, there was no doubt in my mind that Hold It Til It Hurts is the definitive novel of the African-American male experience during the Bush years. I’ll be thinking about sentences like this one for a long time:
There were the morbidly inquisitive, people who thought they could comprehend, secondhand, if they could understand how often the dead appear to be grinning, or that if you stare too long a dead friend looks more and more like a stranger, while a dead stranger looks increasingly like a long-lost friend.
Unfortunately, Johnson’s follow-up Welcome to Braggsville is the shaggy, far less accomplished younger brother of his first book, a coming-of-age tragi-farce that never finds cohesion between the genres it tries to blend. Simultaneously undercooked and overstuffed, the purported Southern-fried comedy fails to clear its lowest hurdle: it’s just not funny enough.
Like Hold It Til It Hurts, Welcome to Braggsville is set primarily in the American South. A group of friends from different backgrounds meet in the undergraduate dorms at UC Berkeley and are referred to as The Little Indians. There’s D’aron, a sensitive white kid from the small town of Braggsville, Georgia. There’s Louis Chang, who wants to be a standup comedian. There’s Candice, a beautiful, liberal blonde so well-intentioned that she holds her own memorial to Ishi because she’s a fraction Native American. And Charles, the black student-athlete with a secret.
In an American History class, the Little Indians decide it would be a good idea to protest Braggsville’s annual Civil War re-enactment by flying to Georgia and staging a fake lynching. The class calls it “a performative intervention.”
I went to Berkeley, and I remember the place as being much less liberal than its legacy. Hundreds of Christian student groups roamed the campus. There were plenty of left-leaning organizations, of course, but by and large, blue-state and red-state students co-existed in peace. No one I knew (teacher or student) would have been surprised that Civil War re-enactments still happened. We all read our George Saunders. No one would ever consider it a smart idea to travel to slavery’s former home turf to get in the face of Southern whites about their culture. Protest from the safety of Sproul Hall? Absolutely. Give up spring break to risk imprisonment or worse? Unlikely. But that’s okay, because I just assumed Johnson, the director of the UC Berkeley Summer Creative Writing Program, was conjuring an exaggerated version of the university we both know for the purposes of raucous satire.
Some of Braggsville is quite raucous. When the faux-lynching goes horribly awry, the ambivalent reaction of the Braggsville residents echoes the way Americans reacted to the wrongful deaths in Ferguson and elsewhere last year. Johnson nails the balancing act between the absurd and the real in this very funny glimpse of D’aron’s college essays:
In regarding my major. There are over three hundred at Berkeley, and it’s hard to choose one when the most popular extracurricular activities here are 4-H, hunting, and Xbox…
I read on the YouTube advice link connected to the application page that we’re not supposed to end with a quote, especially from a book called “The Road Less Traveled.” Well, I guess I just did that anyway…
On another note, YouTube also said to be honest, so I must admit that the other reason I like UC Berkeley is because the only way I could get farther from Home is to learn how to swim.
I wished the reader could laugh more often at The Little Indians. But Johnson wants the reader to take their coming-of-age seriously. Everyone goes along with the protest because Candice is enthusiastic about it, and they all seem to desire her. Poor Candice – the only female of significance in the book – is repeatedly sexualized even in the most tragic of circumstances. See this passage after the disastrous performative intervention:
Looking at her feet D’aron winced. The ankles and insteps red clay encrusted. The left little toenail ripped off. Muddy blood caulked the cuticle and the nail bed was red as a blister. They… took… him! They… took… him!
They who? They who?
Candice was sitting upright now, no longer clutching her blouse. Her bra, also tiger-striped, poked through the hole where the breast pocket would be. Charlie reached over and gingerly adjusted her shirt, but there wasn’t enough fabric to cover everything.
She looked up at D’aron, and her eyes, always a little sleepy in a cute way, were inflamed, and her stare so fixed and piercing.
Candice is cute, even when it looks like she might have been raped and one of D’aron’s best friends is missing.
These tonal clangings bog down Welcome to Braggsville. After one of the Little Indians dies, the last two-thirds of the book is almost impossible to laugh with, despite the swipes at Southern culture, the appearance of Pynchonesque federal agents, and an absurd trial by tribunal in front of the local militia. Because while we should have been chewing on Johnson’s social commentary about America, the book is most concerned with D’aron’s grief.
Other times, the book tries to be funny, but isn’t. Louis Chang is a comic genius in D’aron’s eyes, but the lengthy standup routine that slays at D’aron’s family picnic is filled with broad cringe-inducers about Asians like “we eat everything but the oink or, sometimes in our case, the bark.”
Huge opportunities for dramatic conflict are missed. Only a few silent moments are given to the dead boy’s parents when they arrive in Braggsville to bring their son’s body home. For some reason, they don’t blame D’aron and his friends for what’s happened.
Welcome to Braggsville made me wish that the same themes had been tackled by an author with sharper satirical knives like a Paul Beatty or Christopher Buckley. I’d love to see this book again in another incarnation, when the little brother of Johnson’s brilliant first book grows up.
Reviewing W. Joseph Campbell’s 1995: The Year the Future Began, Louis Menand explores, among other things, the different conceptions and strategies for recording history.
Today in jeez we’re just the worst: we killed so many whales in the 20th Century.
But at least we have a whole lot of museums.
The Moon has given us so much, don’t you think it’s time we give it its OWN moon?
Hey look, a very large meteorite impact.
Meanwhile, I’m mainly just thinking about airport codes today.
Over at Jezebel, Kelly Faircloth shares a fantastic long form piece on the rise of the Harlequin romance novel, and how the brand became synonymous with a wildly lucrative if critically dismissed genre. From the original formula for woman-centered, alpha-male page turners to Harlequin’s relentless advertising tactics to the question of exactly how much sex sells best, Faircloth presents a sociological study. And maybe Harlequin still has something to teach the publishing industry today:
They knew they were selling to women, and they chased women’s dollars without embarrassment or apology. And let’s face it, being associated with women is often the shortest route to being dismissed in the broader culture as fundamentally unserious.
Over at the New Yorker, a journalist returns to what was almost the last town he ever reported on.
(adj.); intended to teach; related to teaching or education
“How did it come to be … that ‘those of us for whom English is a line of work are also called upon to love literature and ensue that others do so, too’?”
–Dora Zhang, “Love, Loot, and Lit.”
“We don’t expect,” writes Dora Zhang, “a molecular biologist to love bacteria in the way we expect an English professor to love Jane Austen.” It’s a valid point: when we talk about literature, it’s usually with undertones of awe, adoration and admiration for the craft of the writing, the words themselves. But what happens when our love for literature must be applied practically—scientifically, even—as either student or teacher? What happens when we are told how to read, interpret, and discuss a book? Join Zhang in a discussion of these ideas in her recent article for The Chronicle.
The world’s first museum dedicated to the life and work of Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, is set to open in his hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts as soon as 2016. The venture will be a welcome addition to the museum circuit of western Mass, already home to the Art Picture Book Museum, the Norman Rockwell Museum, and the Yiddish Book Center, and will be a lively center for education programs as well as cultural artifacts. Visitors can look forward to kid-sized recreations of the real Springfield sights that inspired later Seussical staples, including the dogwoods that would become truffula trees, the city zoo, and of course, the famed Mulberry Street.
Wednesday 3/25: The University of San Francisco presents Day 2 of their annual Emerging Writers Festival, featuring Stegner Fellow Shara Lessley and the winner of the 2012 American Short(er) Fiction Award, Ryan MacDonald. Free, 7:45 p.m., University of San Francisco, Marschi Room, Fromm Hall.
Celebrated novelist and Yale Professor Caryl Phillips is in town to promote The Lost Child, his tenth novel, published this month by Farrar, Straus. Giroux. He will be reading excerpts tonight at City Lights. It’s probably a good idea to arrive early for this one. Free, 7 p.m., City Lights.
Thursday 3/26: The Emerald Tablet will host a closing party for its gallery show, “From Mission to North Beach,” which features large scale paintings by artists from these iconic neighborhoods, many of them celebrated writers as well. There will be performances by musician Jorge Molina, Jack Hirschman (San Francisco’s poet laureate emeritus), slam champion Matt Sedillo, and others. Free, 6-10 p.m., The Emerald Tablet.
What comes to mind when you hear the name Monica Lewinsky? The blue dress? A beret? Or maybe some rap songs? If so, you’re far from alone. But that all changed for several of us, including me, when she walked onto the TED stage Thursday.
The affair that propelled then 22-year-old Monica Lewinsky into the spotlight happened almost twenty years ago. Celebrities and non-celebrities have done far more scandalous things since. None have been vilified or remained a laughingstock for so long.
The theme for TED2015 was Truth & Dare and, in the first three days of the conference, I heard more discussion of her upcoming talk than the theme or any other individual speaker. Not a single TEDster made a snide comment. And not a single person planned to miss her talk and see what idea, in the spirit of TED talks, she planned to share. (more…)
At the Telegraph, Mario Vargas Llosa drops some wisdom on the state of literature:
“I remember when I was young,” he continues, “to have a literary or artistic vocation was really dramatic, because you were so isolated from the common world. You felt that you were marginal, and if you dared to try to organize your life around your vocation, you knew you’d be completely segregated. This is changing now, particularly in bigger countries – even in Lima, now, you can be a painter, a musician or a poet; it’s difficult but not impossible. But then,” he shrugs, “it seemed so unrealistic.”
As Humphrey Bogart didn’t say in Casablanca, “This could be the beginning of a beautiful Do-Over.” As Kathleen Ossip did say, in her newly released third collection of poems, “I am/ Still studying, aren’t you?” Yes, as a matter of fact, I am! Thank you for asking.
One of my recent pleasures of study has been this very book and the extraordinary permissions it offers to readers and writers alike—indeed to anyone who is “still studying”—to make process a part of their project, to tear down fourth walls all over the place, to renovate unremittingly across the page, and to entertain re-vision (as Rich wrote of it, with that essential hyphen) as the subject itself rather than that which is ultimately scrapped on the cutting room floor.
I bring up movies because Ossip’s collection is remarkably cinematic. I find myself watching these poems more than reading them, and sometimes the speaker herself comments on what she has shown me. This doesn’t happen in a voiceover kind of way, remote and all-knowing, but as if a woman “wimpled by unknowing” had sat down beside me in the theater, offered some popcorn, and whispered in my ear: “Accordion music is the saddest music on earth: agree or disagree?” Beneath my own wimple of unknowing, I mull on the question, listen to the soundtrack of the poem.
What we mis-hear is often as important as what we hear, I’m learning. Perhaps by analogy, what we don’t know is just as important as what we do. This message certainly comes through in The Do-Over. Recall how in Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman actually says, “Play it once, Sam,” and later, “Play it, Sam.” She never says, “Play it again.” Yet from a single misquoted phrase, look at the artistic innovations that arose: Woody Allen’s 1969 Broadway play, Play It Again, Sam, followed by the film of the same name adapted for the screen in 1972. Then, the Manchester Orchestra wrote a song called “Play it again, Sam,” for their album, You Brainstorm, I Brainstorm, but Brilliance Needs a Good Editor (which, incidentally, could be the title of a Kathleen Ossip poem—I urge her to write it!). Then, Milton Babbitt wrote a solo for viola called “Play it again, Sam” in 1989. For what it’s worth, I think viola music is the saddest music on earth: agree or disagree? See how Ossip, too, invites these kinds of riffs, these shape-shifting variations on a theme.
Her poem, “Tool Moan,” is premised entirely upon a mishearing. The speaker sets the scene: “I sat at a table outside an Irish pub, with a child I adored and a man I didn’t, in/ a resort town in summer.// Another man sat on a folding chair attempting to entertain the diners with/ accordion music […] I heard the waitresses call him Tool Moan.” This is what she heard, and so this is what we, the audience of the poem, heard, too. We follow her through the poem, the evening’s unfolding: “The man paid the bill. The child ran ahead. Delicate equals subject to damage/ (and almost equals celtic). ‘You have some competition tonight,’ I said to Tool/ Moan as we left.”
You see it, too, don’t you? You’re watching with the same curious interest that I am. “‘I know,’ he said. Later, back in the hotel room, I realized I’d misheard. His name was Tout le Monde (equals everybody in French)…”, or more precisely, all the world. Ossip doesn’t abandon the poem with this realization. Instead, she allows the realization to develop in real time. Now everything we thought we heard, thought we knew, must be recontextualized, reconsidered. In this way, the poem resembles real life, looking backward to move forward. In this way, the poem is also a form of cinéma vérité.
As Haley Joel Osment didn’t say in The Sixth Sense, “I see Do-Overs.” But Ossip’s speaker tells us, “I’m afraid of death.” She’s candid like that. And later: “Birth, I believed,// was the brilliant upheaval. Now I see Death is another.” Perhaps upheavals are the reason we need do-overs in the first place. After all, “We walk every day through a haunted house.” Ghosts follow us around. This book is full of them, actually: popular ghosts like Amy Winehouse and pioneering ghosts like Steve Jobs. There are painting ghosts like Lucian Freud and singing ghosts like Donna Summer, and the ghost of our collective unconscionable, Troy Davis. You will find them all here, vividly embodied. They are so real that you, too, will “want to believe in reincarnation an eternity of do-overs.” There’s even a “Ghost Moon,” like a spotlight in the balcony, commenting on the ghosts ahead and behind, the ghosts above and below: “This is the light of the culture: gold and misleading./ The moon of the culture is full; its light is thick.” It’s a meta-moon, the kind that shares its popcorn and whispers in our ears: “I’m vast, you’re vast, we’ve been done.”
Now maybe you’re thinking, as Clark Gable wasn’t in Gone with the Wind, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a Do-Over.” But you will. Here’s why: “Perseverance is beautiful.” In other words, we’re defined more by the do-over than the first attempt, more by the next than the last. “Success consists in ignoring/ what you don’t like, as a bunny//leaps past tinfoil/ in his search for greens.” And this is nothing if not a searching book, a green book—not in the sense of novice, but in the sense of new, fresh, poetry like you haven’t seen it before. This is a poet who isn’t afraid to tell us: “We don’t have the tools, yet, to prove//much of anything.” Or this: “To create an image of what I mean///only makes it worse.” Or this: “What does infinity look like? It hurts.” Her reiterations aren’t redundant; they’re cumulative. This is a poetics of extreme long shots and extreme close ups, alternating in tandem, a speaker who wanders into prose and wanders back again. She is the Something There is That Doesn’t Love a Wall, that Wants It Down.
Often, as you read her incisive description of an experience, you have the uncanny sensation that she is describing your own experience reading about hers. Is there a name for this? Meta-transference? Meta-transitivity? Meta-vicariousness? Like here, in Ossip’s wide-angled prose panorama: “people are like stories, was my experience. Once you’ve read them, you can’t unread them. They’re part of your nervous system.” Or here, in this tightly enjambed still: “A piece of you flew into me one day, a/ Niggling hooked little finger of spirit.” This book stays with you, alters something in your poetic constitution. You’re still digesting, long after the collection is done.
As Jennifer Gray didn’t say in Dirty Dancing, but as I’m sure she’d agree: “Nobody puts Ossip in a corner.” For inasmuch as this book is about death and dying, it’s also about figuring out how to live and plumbing the many possibilities inherent in any life. Our speaker in these poems, who is also our doer, and our do-over-er, is a true agnostic. (Recall that wimpled unknowing, which I love so much and trust so deeply.) She tells us again and again, shifting her Libra scales: “This I don’t believe or disbelieve.” And this: “The love grows elastic, something very different to the observer,//the extreme/ natural of it, the extreme unnatural.” And this: “A song of love and death makes its own/ bitter symmetry, that’s the myth of achievement.” Then, best and most human of all: “I do but I don’t.” Who doesn’t recognize this sentiment deep in her nervous system? The yes and the no, both at once. The essential ambiguity of maybe, perhaps. Do we—and don’t we—all?
The myth of achievement is the false account that everything culminates in a single, definitive moment or action. For instance, a thesis is proved. Or a climax occurs. Or an epiphany materializes. But not here, not in this relentlessly rhizomatic collection. As Jeff Bridges never said in The Big Lebowski, “The Do-Over abides.” Here is a speaker poised on a Möbius strip. As she travels the length of it, she returns to her starting point having covered a great distance but never having crossed an edge. (No corners indeed!) At the end, which is also the beginning, she looks straight into the lens and says: “There’s nothing good about ill-timed death. Nor about the death of love. That/ poetry glamorizes them disturbs me.” So, she made a poetry that doesn’t. It’s as simple as that, and as complicated.
Then, she turns the lens on us: “In the important world (my imagination), I am watching you, simply, without hope or dream.” She’s practicing abiding, having told us just a page before that “Expectation lingers/ just like a memory.” It’s hard to let go, so we do, and we don’t. We turn back to the beginning again; we loop around: “Whether we accept/ these processes or are repulsed by them, we are still studying.”
I don’t know about you, but Kathleen Ossip had me at The Do-Over.
For a poet as anthologized as Elizabeth Bishop, it’s fair to say there’s a certain lack of serious criticism—or perhaps, critics thinking seriously—about her work, compared to the Modernists against whose influence she was writing. Eavan Boland reviews a new volume by Colm Tóibín that aims to begin closing the gulf. On Elizabeth Bishop is a thirteen-part book, approaching the poet as a radical transformer of language and an intellectual force, and leading a critical exploration of, as Boland describes it, the “eerie alloy of dark music coupled with a deceptive vernacular [that] was Bishop’s signature achievement.”
Everything you think you know is a lie; on the urban legend of Hemingway’s six word story.
Annie Edson Taylor is your historical badass for the day.
The lost map that changed everything. (Hyperbole much?)
When life gives you a lack of helium make new diving suits.
And some pretty grotesque, NSFW 1930s King Lear illustration.
Simultaneously divisive and overlooked, Saul Bellow’s work has produced both fervent supporters and detractors while alienating many younger readers. This spring, a new biography by Zachary Leader will bring the late author back into the conversation. Vulture‘s Lee Siegel reflects on the strengths and shortcomings of a writer whose political incorrectness was matched only by his liberating language.
For the New York Times, Aatish Taseer argues that English has left Indian literature “voiceless,” as writers are often asked to produce work with western audiences in mind:
India, if it is to speak to itself, will always need a lingua franca. But English, which re-enacts the colonial relationship, placing certain Indians in a position the British once occupied, does more than that. It has created a linguistic line as unbreachable as the color line once was in the United States.
The New York Comics & Picture-Story Symposium is a weekly forum for discussing the tradition and future of text/image work. Open to the public, it meets Tuesday nights 7-9 p.m. EST in New York City. (more…)
There is a certain writerly allure to casino gambling that I find difficult to resist — or perhaps I should call it a not writing allure. Having a crowd chant my name as I shoot dice is not something I’ll ever experience revising sentences in the UNLV library. The perfect supplement to the fragile joy of editing the 19th draft of a short story that really has potential this time is winning a hand of poker by going all in, taking another man’s stack while the competition looks on, envious and impressed.
Like a modern Dostoyevsky, Daniel Hernandez recalls his days as student gambling his nights away during an MFA in Las Vegas in an essay over at The Millions.
Jack-of-all-trades Nick Cave just pulled a J.K. Rowling, this time on barf bags rather than a cocktail napkin. During his 2014 tour with The Bad Seeds, the multimedia musician/writer/actor penned an entire book on the sides of airplane sick bags, appropriately titled The Sick Bag Song. A limited edition copy available June 4th will include a customized yak receptacle, hopefully unused.