6.28.2015

Random Speculations Regarding "The Secret Street" of Steve Erickson's in Days Between Stations



In reading Daniel Lindsay's superb, unputdownable, master's thesis Years Between Stations: The Dream of America in Steve Erickson late into the night last night, I was reminded that Steve Erickson's childhood home in the San Fernando Valley was bulldozed to make way for the then new 118 Freeway being constructed at the time.

Later last night, very late -- which is the best time to read and reflect on Erickson's haunting novels, times when "crucifixes of shadow" might seep from the moon through the blinds into my room; musing upon brilliant, under appreciated books like Rubicon Beach or These Dreams of You, novels that will remain inside me forever, having gestated and developed over time in my memory's darkroom into their own independent uncanny entities -- I pulled my mylar-protected, first Poseidon Press printing, of Days Between Stations off the shelf and noticed something in it I hadn't noticed before, even though I had read Erickson's own accounts of his boyhood growing up in Los Angeles' sprawling suburbs in Leap Year: A Political Journey.

Early in Days Between Stations, Lauren and Jason (who's just back from Vietnam: "The smell of Asia was always in the air ... He had no real sense of relief, because he wasn't wise enough to understand he could die...") leave Kansas for California.  In San Francisco "they lived on a secret street, which was entered through a small hallway at the top of a series of steps that ran up a hill."  The secret street Lauren and Jason reside on hasn't been plotted on any street maps of the city that Lauren can find.  Strange.

Two years later, they move to L.A. and, coincidentally, land on a street they'll call home in the Hollywood Hills that is likewise entered through an even longer series of obscure steps.

"Three summers later," after Jason has left her for some distant station of his own, Lauren returns to San Francisco.  She spends three hours trying to find the street she once lived on.  But "the steps were nowhere to be seen".  She asks mail carriers, shop keepers in the area, policemen, about the steps and her street, but not one of them knows or recollects what the hell she's talking about.  It was as if the street and her home had never existed.

Likewise, Erickson's street and home from childhood no longer exist, having been razed for that damnable freeway.  I just wonder if that loss of his -- a part of his childhood gone forever, destroyed -- was transformed through his imagination into "the secret street" of Lauren's and Jason's in his first published novel, Days Between Stations?

I also wonder, in regards to those missing steps that led to the secret street in San Francisco, if Erickson, already an admitted admirer of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's magical realism, was also an admirer of Alejo Carpentier's The Lost Steps? Was Erickson perhaps paying Carpentier homage with his own lost steps in San Francisco?

Not many writers or critics have ever before attempted to map the imagination of Steve Erickson.  Read just one, any one, of Steve Erickson's fabulist, fantastic novels (and that's "fantastic" in every meaning and nuance of the word), and discover yourself how daring and dynamic, how complex and convoluted, is the cartography of Steve Erickson's inimitable imagination.  I applaud Daniel Lindsay and the astute insight of his master's thesis, Years Between Stations: The Dream of America in Steve Erickson, which sets in lucid relief the occasionally (albeit purposely) opaque yet always captivating -- even if it is sometimes cryptic, sometimes challenging -- unique artistry of an author, Steve Erickson, long overdue recognition; long overdue like Anna Kavan is long overdue; like William Gaddis and Philip K. Dick were once long overdue... or ... even overdue like Herman Melville once was, long before them.

6.21.2015

Telling Stories by one of Living Literature's finest storytellers ever, Joan Didion



'IN the fall of 1954, when I was nineteen and a junior at Berkeley, I was one of perhaps a dozen students admitted to the late Mark Schorer's English 106A ... English 106A was widely regarded in the fall of 1954 as a kind of sacramental experience, an initiation into the grave world of real writers ... I recall classroom discussions which ranged over meetings with Paul and Jane Bowles, incidents involving Djuna Barnes, years spent in Paris, in Beverly Hills, in the Yucatan, on the lower East Side of New York and on Repulse Bay and even on morphine ... I had never read Paul or Jane Bowles, let alone met them, and when, some fifteen years later at a friend's house in Santa Monica Canyon, I did meet Paul Bowles, I was immediately rendered as dumb and awestruck as I had been when I was nineteen and taking English 106A.... ' (boldness mine)

Telling Stories, 1978
So opens Joan Didion's essay "Telling Stories," the sole essay collected in this rarest of rare rarities of Joan Didion's, Telling Stories. I'd be "rendered dumb and awestruck", too, meeting Jane and Paul Bowles, but I'd probably be rendered dumber meeting Joan Didion. God knows I'm awestruck just reading her marvelous books. No secret I love Joan Didion. Unfortunately, so do a lot of people. Love Joan Didion. A lot. A lot of people love Joan Didion so much that this whole lotta love and adoration is unfortunate for a book collector such as yours truly and many others, no doubt, because it has made copies of all but signed and inscribed first printings by Joan Didion -- be it her classic essay collections (Slouching Toward Bethlehem, The White Album, After Henry, Political Fictions, Where I Was From), iconic memoirs (Salvador, Miami, The Year of Magical Thinking, Blue Nights), and novels (Run River, Play It As It Lays, A Book of Common Prayer, Democracy, The Last Thing He Wanted), alike -- ubiquitous in the eyes of book collectors on the hunt for something rare or obscure of hers.

David Foster Wallace had rarities like "The Planet Trillaphon as It Relates to the Bad Thing," his first story published in 1984 in Amherst College's student literary review, and "Untitled Chunk," published posthumously in the first, Jan. 2009, issue of The Chaffey Review; while Joseph McElroy has a prized rarity also -- 1980s Ship Rock: A Place -- a stand alone excerpt from "Women And Men: A Novel In Progress" published in a limited run of 226 copies by William B. Ewert, of which I own copy 95, but that's a previous story; and so likewise, Joan Didion, has Telling Stories, "Number 26 In The Series of Keepsakes Issued By The Friends Of The Bancroft Library For It's Members" at U.C. Berkeley.

But even those signed and inscribed first printings of Joan Didion's aforementioned most famous books from the Sixties and Seventies do not, as a rule, fetch high prices, barely breaking $1000 among book dealers, which is a low sum for a writer as revered as Didion, what with her impeccable reputation among both critics/peers and her faithful longtime readers. The great supply of Joan Didion's books, unfortunately, exceeds the great demand.  None of her books, in fact, are out of print. Even her first printings in mint condition, protected in brodart, are a dime a dozen, and rarely retail for more than twenty U.S. dollars.  Turns out even this scarce, limited edition "Keepsake" of hers, published in 1978, Telling Stories, holds relatively little monetary value among collectors, too, and yet for me, because I so love Joan Didion (I'd marry her in a second and make her my second wife -- my current wife would just have to deal with it -- if only Joan Didion would let me) is priceless.

Inside my copy of Telling Stories, that I was fortuitous enough to find a few years ago at The Bookman of Orange, was a folded insert advertisment (see below) with other regional California titles in the keepsake series published by Didion's alma mater, U.C. Berkeley. . . .

advertisement included in my copy, listing all the "Keepsakes"
U.C. Berkeley's Bancroft Library sold to its members

Telling Stories contains the only three short stories that Joan Didion has so far published in book form, and all were written in 1964; they are ...  1) "Coming Home" (originally published in 1967 in The Saturday Evening Post); ... 2) "The Welfare Island Ferry" (originally published in 1965 in Harper's Bazaar); ... and 3) "When Did Music Come This Way? Children Dear, Was It Yesterday?".

Story #3 above was rejected twenty-three times before the little known Denver Quarterly accepted it for publication in 1967 for the modest, under market value of fifty paltry dollars.  Fifty.  Absurd.  Five dollars per page.  Even then, nearly fifty years ago, fifty dollars was a lowball payment for an already established and renowned pro of Didion's rank.  Perhaps by the time of Telling Stories' publication, an only by then amusingly-peeved, somewhat sardonic, Joan Didion, still saw fit to take the time and limited space in U.C. Berkeley's keepsake for its members, Telling Stories, and noted for posterity's sake each and every publication that rejected -- and in some instances their rationale for rejecting -- her story with the admittedly long and arguably questionable title, "When Did Music Come This Way? Children Dear, Was It Yesterday?", that Didion even conceded...

'...works not at all as a story.  It is instead an extended notation for an unwritten novel, an exercise in the  truest sense.  It was in "When Did Music" that I taught myself -- or began to teach myself -- how to make narrative tension out of nothing more than the juxtaposition of past and present.  I should have known what I learned in this story before I ever wrote my first novel.  {Run River, 1964}  Had I never written this story I would have never written a second novel.  {Play It As It Lays, 1970}  As crude and imperfect as the story is, it seems to me by far the most interesting of the three.'

I think Didion suffers from that harsh, but common and understandable malady affecting all successful writers, who when given the opportunity to reflect upon their earliest works, are inevitably driven to its disparagement. For I found in "When Did Music Come This Way? Children Dear, Was It Yesterday?" a satisfying story indeed, one reminiscent of her clipped, understated, much-emulated style, contained within a, granted, less refined and effortless or natural sounding voice; voices as such inwardly shrieked with muzzled existential terror, out of the pretty mouths of those doomed starlet beauties I'll never forget, Maria Wyeth and Charlotte Douglas, of Play It As it Lays and A Book of Common Prayer infamy, respectively.  The muzzled, terror stricken voice here in "When Did Music" is an unnamed woman home for Christmas in Reno, Nevada, but instead of the hope and joy and festive season's greetings she should be experiencing, she'll get walloped by the usual, familial, petty hells of the holiday instead.  Listen to her voice and hear in it if it is not nearly as memorable as Didion's later, universal, hard luck soliloquies thought aloud by Maria or Charlotte:

"We all say the same things. Here are some facts. Ward died in 1949, in an aerial show in South Dakota. Aunt Inez did not marry again, and is now on a cruise of the Balkans; I received a card today. "Happy landings," it closed. Cary has married, twice, and I saw her for lunch during the World's Fair. She had five vodka martinis, one in lieu of dessert. I see my mother and father once a year, in July, when I take the children out. They seem older, and to prefer talking to the children than to me. Charlie called a few hours ago to say that if the Christmas tree was not down by the time he came home he would call the Fire Department, that it would ignite one night soon and burn us in our beds. I pointed out that in any case it was unlikely to catch him.  Those are only the facts."

The prestigious periodicals who, nevertheless, rejected "When Did Music Come This Way? Children Dear, Was It Yesterday?" are itemized by Didion in "Telling Stories" and, since Didion saw fit to name them by name, shouldn't I do so as well?  If anything, a rejection list like the following afforded Joan Didion offers hope to aspiring writers everywhere, demonstrating as it does that every would-be writer -- in fact, every published writer period, too, even one of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Century's most accomplished writers, Joan Didion -- faced rejection.

Esquire, Harper's Bazaar, Saturday Evening Post, The New Yorker, Ladies' Home Journal (twice rejected), McCall's, Redbook, Atlantic Monthly, Cosmopolitan (rejected twice due to a change in its editorial staff), Vogue, Mademoiselle, The Reporter, Harper's, Hudson Review, Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly, Paris Review, Yale Review, and Sewanee Review, all rejected Joan Didion. Those, too, are only the facts.

And then there was Good Housekeeping's rejection note -- and it's a good note to end on -- because it's by far the funniest rejection of all the rejections; funny, that is, for Didion aficionados well versed in her bereaved poetic prose and melancholic rumination; well versed, in other words, in her overall dark and invariably despairing oeuvre:

"Marvelously written, very real, and so utterly depressing that I'm going to sit under a cloud of angst and gloom all afternoon...I'm sorry we are seldom inclined to give our readers this bad a time."

6.14.2015

The Documents of Vatican II edited by Walter M. Abbott, S.J.



I am not a Catholic.  Neither am I an Atheist.  Call me, instead, an Absurdeist.  Nevertheless, I recommend (and say it with conviction freed of any and all irony -- yeah right) that every believer and unbeliever alike should read or at least skim as swiftly as humanly possible the The Documents of Vatican II.   So what if its consistent lapses into tiresome opacity makes reading it late at night, as I have, a more effective antidote to insomnia than Ambien or a double gin and tonic -- for what compendium or even lesser pamphlet attached with a rubber band to the metallic grate of my front screen door, for that matter, of religious dogma and/or philosophy isn't tiresome or opaque? Ever read the Book of Deuteronomy or that wondrously unimaginative tome of fantasy called The Book of Mormon? Even one I like such as What the Buddha Taught may make me yawn if I'm on the wrong page.  Likewise Ludwig Wittgenstein.  Even the most devout adherents of so-called sacred texts would have to admit they'd be breaking -- while if not, technically speaking, the letter of the law, then the spirit -- of the Ninth Commandment given to Moses, if they said their particular sacred text never put them into a thankfully brief comatose state once in a while, right? Tell me I'm wrong, if you dare.

My major complaint with The Documents of Vatican II is that, while addressing how Catholics (the priesthood in particular) are to behave specifically in a variety of religious and secular situations, it never once addresses the opposite: how the priesthood is not to act in those specific situations, secular or religious.  There’s nary a mention I could find of official disciplinary protocol should a member of the priesthood conduct themselves in a manner unbecoming their higher calling, including as it pertains to what’s appropriate and inappropriate interaction with younger generations of parishioners entrusted to their spiritual care.  But neither do The Documents of Vatican II anywhere in its pages I could find promote the kind of behavior that makes the spate of controversial scandals and cover-ups involving "pastoral indiscretions” with childhood laity, ongoing here in the States for at least the past two decades, ubiquitous and no longer shocking. The Documents of Vatican II, in fact, remain surprisingly silent on many contemporary and relevant topics confronting The Church today, unless one deems, say, Nostra Aetate (The Church's official stance toward non-Christians) or Gravissimum Educationis (its position on Christian education) topical or relevant.  But the same criticism, of course, could be levied at the Bible.

Hopefully, in the future, the Vatican will update its ecumenical council's documents to include disciplinary protocol for the priesthood, and maybe include as well some sections on “transparency” and “accountability” (wish I knew the important Latin spellings for the words; any Jesuit monks out there know them?) for those employed by the Church, so that the Church’s credibility and mission in the world as an instrument for God’s glorification and salvation for every man, woman, and child She's been allegedly divinely appointed to help save and to serve could be greeted hereafter by the world's applause, rather than its well deserved, abundant disdain.

5.31.2015

The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest by Anatoli Boukreev and G. Weston DeWalt



The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest by the late great Anatoli Boukreev and G. Weston DeWalt was, at its heart, a direct rebuttal of Jon Krakauer's assertions in Into Thin Air that Anatoli Boukreev abandoned the clients he was hired to guide up and down Everest on that fateful day, May 10, 1996, when five climbers from two different commercial expeditions perished in a surprise storm on their descent from the summit.

Amazing copy signed by Anatoli Boukreev on 11/14/97
just six weeks before he died
image from Walkabout Books  
The late Anatoli Boukreev was considered by many the best mountaineer in the world at the time the events documented in The Climb occurred, with nearly a dozen 8,000m peaks in his pocket, including ascents to the top of Everest and several other of the highest Himalayan mountains without oxygen.  His physical conditioning and acclimatization techniques for thriving in high altitudes remain arguably unsurpassed almost two decades since his untimely death on Christmas, 1997, in an avalanche on Annapurna.  And more importantly, they remain practical examples of what you need to do -- and how you need to do it -- in order to survive the insane Everest ordeal.

But did being an expert mountaineer necessarily preclude the possibility of Boukreev making a fatal mistake; namely, abandoning his clients high up on Everest in a death zone whiteout in order to save his own skin?  Depends on who you ask, though I would reply, based on reading The Climb and Into Thin Air, with a hearty "hardly." According to Boukreev, his swift descent from the summit ahead of the clients he was hired to protect and to guide was part of the plan determined beforehand by his expedition leader, Scott Fischer.  Unfortunately, Scott Fischer was one of the victims that horrific afternoon and evening on the mountain, and so he can obviously neither confirm nor deny Boukreev's claim.  Boukreev, after descending, did in fact go back out into the swirling whiteout and singlehandedly save several climbers, but could he have saved more -- saved everyone? -- had he not left the climbers in the first place?  Pure conjecture.  Who knows?  Who could definitively say?  Not Krakauer, although he apparently thought he could.  Funny how what Krakauer alleged Boukreev of doing he did himself: swiftly descending from the summit of Everest in order to save his own foolhardy ass.  Granted, Krakauer was just a journalist with some lesser climbing experience who by his own accounts in Into Thin Air probably never should have attempted Everest in the first place (ya think?), while Boukreev was a mountaineering professional.  But regardless, Krakauer can't legitimately claim to know the outcomes of every what-if scenario culled from what would've had to have been an exponential number of unpredictable contingencies that day, unless he were God.  And I seriously doubt God's last name is Krakauer.

Incredibly, even almost twenty years after Boukreev's death, the controversy -- did Boukreev behave appropriately or not as a guide, did he? didn't he? -- still rages.  It's ludicrous. The bickering that's gone on back-and-forth in this-mountaineering-magazine or that-online-climbing-forum between Krakauer's adherents and Boukreev's staunch defenders amounts to arguably more than all the accumulated literature ever written about Mt. Everest, and yet it all amounts to nothing, to so much redundant rhetoric of he-said she-said regarding facts that can never be known. I wholeheartedly agree with Mark Horrell's observation that sometimes, no one is to blame when climbers die on Everest. After reading and reflecting upon Boukreev's side of the controversy in The Climb, I'm convinced this was also the case in the dire sequence of events that transpired May 10th, 1996, on Mt. Everest.  The Climb is a riveting and painstakingly detailed remembrance recorded within days of the disaster by Boukreev and G. Weston DeWalt.  Among mountaineering memoirs, it ranks right up there with the best ever written about Everest.

5.24.2015

Five Vintage, Appropriately Lurid, Mass Market Paperbacks (# 1.0)



Up first is a newer, appropriately lurid, vintage book cover favorite: BIBLIOBIMBO. I haven't researched it to be 100% positive that it's a loving parody -- an homage -- to mass market pulp covers, but regardless, even if Bibliobimbo isn't a real dime store novel authored by a real bona fide author of the nom de guerre, "John Thomas," the cover blurbs and cover image itself are all clever and brilliant, and I wish I owned a copy whether it exists in reality or not. Surely it exists somewhere in the unreality of Jorge Luis Borges' "Library of Babel"!



ooOoo

BLONDE ON THE ROCKS is an old favorite by a master of lurid detective noir, Carter Brown.  My sole complaint with the otherwise perfect cover artwork:  Where are the damn ice cubes? Is this vixen truly served on the rocks or is she served up?  If this book cover were a real ad for a real drink Carter Brown could be legitimately sued for illegitimate advertising!



ooOoo

Bantam Giant's edition of Pulitzer Prize winning author's John P. Marquand's H.M. PULHAM, ESQ., proves lurid covers don't absolutely have to be limited to the leering glances of brazen women with robust, partially exposed bosoms, who've no doubt been up to no recent good. . . .



ooOoo

. . . but lurid, tantalizing, almost-bare-busted, voluptuous book covers, nevertheless, are always best! Wet your lips for KISS OR KILL by John B. Thompson.  Damn seaweed.



ooOoo

Ooh-la-la!  . . .  Such unwholesome, such naughty ladies of perdition make the most swell, the most fabulous, the most devilishly delightful and appropriately lurid book covers, don't they?  Case in point: LADIES IN HADES by Frederic Arnold Kummer. Have one hell of a good time, Reader, with these "gay lovelies" confessing all among "the smart-set in Hell". . .





5.07.2015

Asylum Piece and Other Stories by Anna Kavan



Reading Asylum Piece and Other Stories (1940) is a visceral experience.  Picture yourself staring into a full body-and-mind mirror that Anna Kavan intentionally cracked so that you could feel and see yourself thoroughly shattered, and if you're empathetically bent at all, you may acquire an inkling of what it was like being one of Anna Kavan's unnamed isolated characters suffering from mental illness, looking into that mirror.  Or catch a glimpse, in the least, of what it was like being a young and alienated and misunderstood and suicidal Anna Kavan.  Contorted realities reflected back out of that impossible mirror come sneaking up on you, quietly shrieking.  Background scenarios are terse and incomplete; we do not know how so and so ended up here in this asylum or there in that asylum; we only know that they are here or there, trapped inside, and perceive themselves incarcerated and persecuted unjustly by a real or imaginary litany of unknown "Enemies": jailers, nurses, husbands, advisors, and, in one stranger case, "Patrons".  Don't assume, however, that these asylum occupants without proper identities are all unreliable narrators, or that they're all deluded, deranged, purely paranoid -- in a word -- insane.  Some are; some aren't.  Some are estranged from reality only some of the time; others, most of the time.  Sometimes those labelled "mad" are in fact the most sane, as Kavan astutely noted elsewhere, in her next story collection I Am Lazarus (1945), I believe.  Kavan crowned ambiguity king page after exquisite page with opaque clarity in Asylum Piece and Other Stories.

In "The Birds," for instance, one of Kavan's unnamed narrator's (or is every story narrated by the same unnerved, come-undone-narrator?, hard to say exactly, but it's likely the many narrators) notices two brightly colored birds outside her window.  Her window where, exactly?  Kavan either leaves the window's ill-defined whereabouts unknown, or the narrator doesn't know.  Asylums, after all, in Kavan's captivating hands, can just as soon be houses, schools, churches, museums, as they can be literal institutional asylums.  Her "servant" (i.e., a person of unspecified title who keeps a constant eye on her, a "shadow"), however, does not see the birds.  Is it another hallucination?

What conclusion was I to draw from this?  It seemed incredible that anyone could fail to observe those twin spots of color, more striking than jewels on the gray January background.  No, I could only presume that the birds were visible to me alone.  That is the conclusion to which I have held ever since: for my ethereal visitors have not deserted me.

We've all seen things, haven't we, from time to time; or at least thought we've seen things (and seen them whether we've ever been inside an asylum of one kind or another or not, if we're honest) that others have failed to see, right?  Are we mad for seeing such things?  Seeing things levitate?  Seeing ghosts?  Should we have been locked up indefinitely for what we've seen like so many of Kavan's unnamed narrators?  Notice, also, the subtle implication in that last sentence italicized in the paragraph above: that even while the birds (i.e., the symbols now of the narrator's only means of expressing her hope for freedom or escape -- and that, too, even if they are just chirping hallucinations -- have not deserted her; whom then, we may wonder, perhaps already has "deserted her"?  History is replete with misunderstood, or vilified, human beings, being abandoned to asylums.

"The Birds" and another of the few fully formed stories, such as "The Birthmark" -- my favorite in this collection, in fact, and one, with its crux of incarceration and climax pivoting off the curious birthmark, the image of a "rose", makes me wonder if maybe Jean Genet derived any inspiration from it a few years later when he sat down to write his second novel, The Miracle of the Rose? -- and the many more multifaceted vignettes, make up the individual shards of Anna Kavan's complex shattering in Asylum Pieces.

Some shards are sharper than others, like "At Night" or the devastating "Just Another Failure", but they're all keen enough to cut you to the bone, so be careful turning Asylum Pieces' pages, lest your eyes begin bleeding: An iron band has been clamped round my head, and just at this moment the jailer strikes the cold metal a ringing blow which sends needles of pain into my eye sockets. . .; or your imagination begins reeling, and you find yourself trapped in her peculiar prisms, within the haunting "eternal fog" of some dark subterranean chamber filled with rats and roaches and little hope of escape, comrade of shut-in and shut-out characters voicing their confused consensus of victimized outrage from various obscure "asylums" they've had the misfortune to inhabit, these yes diagnosable "deranged" but somehow, even if for only a moment, still sane, still dignified, Underground Women of Anna Kavan's; all of whom, I'm positive, would've made Dostoyevski proud.

4.26.2015

Jhamak Kumari Ghimire: Hope for Nepal



Jhamak Kumari Ghimire is a Nepalese writer whose novel Jeevan Kada ki Phool ("Life is a Flower or a Thorn") recently won Nepal's highest literary prize.


Shortly after she was born in 1980, her parents secretly hoped she would die -- a wish that wasn't shameful but merciful and humane -- because they understandably perceived then that their baby daughter was little more than a "vegetable" without probable hope of future independence or any future, for that matter, free of excruciating suffering. Despite her cerebral palsy, Jhamak Kumari Ghimire learned to write when she was young with the only muscles under her complete control -- the three toes of her left foot.

Thinking of Nepal this morning, and searching for inspiration.

4.25.2015

Kirby Wilkins' autograph (Vanishing)



Every teacher who's ever taught or is currently teaching creative writing and every aspiring student who's ever written creatively or who is likewise creatively writing in the specific here and the specific now under the tender tutelage of a certified writing instructor, and all this whether said instructor was or is in high school, college, or an MFA writing workshop, should drop what they're doing right now and read "The Assignment" by Kirby Wilkins.  That's my impromptu assignment to anyone who reads this now or at any moment in the future: read "The Assignment"!

Why?  Because it crushes clichés, for one thing, and twists with acerbic wit, for another, the tired-and-untrue notions of what creative writing is--and isn't--and how best not to go about inspiring it in uninspiring stock writing assignments such as:

"... using illustrations and examples as well as vivid description to communicate your feeling for the person, describe a person who has had a great influence on your life..."

Oh, God, yada yada yada, Teacher, here we go again with another lame assignment, and yet that's exactly how Kirby Wilkins began his short story "The Assignment"--with an uncreative assignment designed to somehow mysteriously elicit that all too elusive quality in literature that is, in fact, vanishing right before our collective very eyes--creativity. Doesn't take Wilkins long to mock what is so asinine about such writing assignments as italicized above: their stay-within-the-lines instructions are inherently restrictive, and do more to limit any would-be creative writer's creative conceptualizing than to unloose their imagination and truest potential, their natural, perhaps as of yet untapped, artistry, that no assignment, no matter how many times a teacher badgers her students over the head with, can successfully tap.

I recommend reading An Interview with Kirby Wilkins by William H. Coles to learn more about this unknown writer a lot more readers should read. That's my second (and it's as mandatory and supplementary as it is imaginary) reading assignment for you.



more autographs

4.24.2015

Vance Bourjaily's autograph (The End of My Life)



 Originally published in 1947, The End of My Life was Vance Bourjaily's (1922-2010) first novel. His inscription ("for Kay / on a beautiful / October Day.") and autograph below are from 1984, the year Arbor House reissued his largely forgotten debut, a melancholic but moving novel about a sensitive soldier, Skinner Galt, who ultimately discovered, as so many soldiers did, that even though his side won the second world war, "You can only mourn."




more autographs

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins



You don't have to be some
 unusually well endowed Sissy Hankshaw
  to give 
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues
  a big thumbs up!

4.18.2015

John Gregory Dunne's autograph (Monster: Living Off the Big Screen)



I first read John Gregory Dunne's shrewd and amusing perspectives on the "Biz" in 1969s The Studio, his second book, but his first excellent exegesis of the film industry and its executors written before he became a player in the business, recounting the remarkable year he spent in 1967 as an astute, everyday observer of Twentieth Century Fox:  On their lot, their sets, in their dressing rooms, board rooms, random offices, during take-fives, lunchtimes, late night overtimes, watching Hollywood hard at work (and, occasionally, harder at play) behind the scenes, interviewing anybody and everybody who'd talk to him, from the headiest of producer honchos to the lowliest gofers on the ladder (and every union scale grip or assistant director's assistant in between), writing it all down all the while, compiling notebook stacks of it, chronicling the comings and goings of those employed by the studio, having been granted an unprecedented all-access pass to it by its usually private and overprotective gatekeepers -- an amazing feat in and of itself for which Dunne probably should have been awarded a special Oscar in 1968!

Funny and fascinating as The Studio was, I thought Monster: Living Off the Big Screen, published nearly three decades later in 1997, funnier and more fascinating, as Dunne was now a Hollywood insider himself, routinely butting heads with some of the more famous bad boys in the business. Monster also captured better how absurd the often all-consuming Business could be; how crude and condescending, as well, were some of its control freakish executive producers.  The "Bully Boys" section, for instance, which, among other things, dissected Dunne's (and his wife's, his screenwriting collaborator, Joan Didion's) surprisingly non-explosive first meeting with the notorious and "difficult to work with" moguls, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, also featured an awful cameo performance by Otto Preminger.  Otto, who might as well have sneered as breathe at the finest living essayist in the world, addressing her as "Misss-isss Dunne" -- as if being old school polite was any excuse for being a sexist dumb ass -- was later showcased in fine form admonishing Joan and John for basically having a life outside Hollywood; for having the gaul, that is, to insist on temporarily leaving their work on an unfinished script in New York in order to travel cross country and tie up some loose ends on a house they were purchasing in Malibu.

That even the most arguably narcissistic producer Hollywood has produced could still be that arrogant in talking down to one of the most revered writing partnerships of the twentieth century, both inside and outside the Biz (though, granted, inside the Biz, screenwriters' slots in the cinematic food chain ranks only slightly above pond scum's), as if they were irresponsible adolescents abandoning their commitments on a whim just to get their feet wet frolicking in the Pacific Ocean, is as flabbergasting as it is unconscionable to read about.  The nerve of these kids!

"I forbid you to go," Otto demanded, when "Didion and Dunne" (as they were known among friends) dared defy him. "If you worked for a studio, Misss-isss Dunne" (never mind her name was Didion, Stupid!), "This behavior would not be tolerated".  Otto Preminger, having his pride apparently wounded by a woman, of all things -- and a petite, fragile appearing woman at that -- sued them for two million dollars.

Whereas The Studio went for the big picture (if you'll pardon my pun); went for the widescreen vantage of an historic Hollywood corporation and its mostly benign artistic foibles day-in and day-out on the set; Monster: Living Off the Big Screen zoomed in, went "up close and personal," you could say, on Dunne's and Didion's unsatisfying and redundant eight years of coerced script revisions on a screenplay that as originally envisioned should've been great; a movie made from it that should've become a gritty biographical docudrama masterpiece about the sordid life and tragic death of TV news anchor, Jessica Savitch; and a movie, moreover, that somehow, after a protracted and vindictive labor strike in Hollywood and a multitude of firings, rehiring, and bastardized script rewrites to the absurd nth degree, metamorphosed into a didactic, artless, allegedly "feel good" flick with its contrived happy ending -- defects which were not Dunne's or Didion's original ideas or doing at all -- this piece of forgettable celluloid dreck starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer. . .

John Gregory Dunne & Joan Didion
At least Dunne's superb memoir Monster: Living Off the Big Screen eventually rose like a phoenix out of the charred remains of that movie's pathetic, burnt out husk the result of studio hubris and corporate banality.

For a much deeper and more personal look at the life and times of John Gregory Dunne, I recommend reading A Death in the Family -- the poignant elegy written by his brother, Dominick, shortly after John's death in 2003.






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4.08.2015

Patricia Grace's autograph (Dogside Story)







Patricia Grace's Dogside Story was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2001, which I mention for those, who, like me, may be visually challenged and cannot read the small print on the front cover pictured above.  I found this autographed copy in a thrift store in Southern California more than 5,000 miles removed from where it was originally sold at The Women's Bookshop at 105 Ponsonby Road, Auckland, New Zealand (see sticker in the middle image above).  I'm not sure why, but I have this strange image in my head of Patricia Grace's novel dog paddling for days on end all the way across the Pacific Ocean.

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4.05.2015

A.M. Homes' autograph (Things You Should Know: A Collection of Stories)




I remember reading Salon's 1996 interview with David Foster Wallace about five years after it'd been published -- this was just after DFW had been hired by the Claremont Colleges and the L.A. Times had run an interesting piece on his work and arrival to the university, and my interest in this writer that I'd heretofore never heard of, was immediately piqued; and piqued enough, I might add, that I immediately and rather obsessively went online to learn more about him -- in which Laura Miller asked DFW who were the contemporary literary writers he read and admired.

A.M. Homes was at the top of his list (and this despite labeling her first novel Jack as being "imperfect" -- as if his first novel had been perfect! -- zeroing in on a short story of hers called "A Real Doll" that had particularly captivated him with what sounded like a bizarre mix of satire and social commentary on the sorry state of our culture's disconnectedness.

After reading the L.A. Times story, not only did I then go to Borders the next day to buy Infinite Jest, I also went to get A.M. Homes' first book of short stories, the phenomenal The Safety of Objects, so I could read "A Real Doll".  And I've been hooked by A.M. Homes' perfect, yet twisted, uh, barbs, ever since . . .





more on The Safety of Objects
more on The Mistress' Daughter: A Memoir






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4.04.2015

Jim Ladd's autograph (Radio Waves: Life and Revolution on the FM Dial)




Jim Ladd, the "lonesome cowboy" of late night radio in Los Angeles for four decades; the self-described aficionado of "long legged ponies," wrote poignantly in Radio Waves: Life and Revolution on the FM Dial, of the rise and fall of L.A. FM radio, of a radio paradise lost, from FMs inception in the late 1960s to its abrupt demise in 1987, when KMET went off the air forever without a word; without even the courtesy of allowing its DJs to say goodbye to its loyal audience; of two luminous and all too brief decades when radio playlists were still determined by real human beings -- by DJs who knew their sonic shit -- rather than the ratings-obsessed program managers and conglomerate suits more interested in record company kickbacks than promoting new and innovative rock-and-roll.

"To Vickie  Lord Have Mercy!  Jim Ladd  8/3/91"
Ladd, long a proponent of what he coined "freeform radio" -- radio that allowed DJs like Ladd and a handful of others to be creative, thematic and novelistic in the setlist stories they let their song choices narrate -- recalled the rise and fall of the legendary KMET and all its subversive shenanigans (as well as its intelligence, social relevance, and sensitivity, too, such as that sad pathetic day John Lennon was shot dead minutes prior to Jim Ladd going on air), and how KMETs demise marked the beginning of the end for freedom and integrity in FM radio throughout every U.S. market.

Well respected by his peers and the musicians he celebrated, Ladd recounted his many interviews or, "innerviews" as he called them, with the likes of John Lennon (Lennon was Ladd's first "innerview," in fact, in 1974), the Eagles, Roger Waters, and Tom Petty, among many other rock icons. The funniest story Ladd recounted for me was his early remembrance when he was just getting started in radio at KNAC in Long Beach, circa 1969, and how he stepped outside of the studio to smoke a joint and inadvertently locked himself out.  Luckily, he'd just set a song from Live Dead on the turnstile that took up an entire album side on the turnstile, twenty-four minutes of Grateful Dead improvosations, and despite being "stoned immaculate" as his idol, Jim Morrison, once sang, was still resourceful enough to find a janitor to let him back inside the studio just seconds before the song ended.  Can't you just imagine Ladd in that desperate moment of his then nascent career, praying, "Lord have mercy!"

Radio Waves is must reading for anyone remotely interested in FM radio's inception; its wild, short-lived frontier history when the Eastern mystical strumming of Ravi Shankar routinely occupied a slot in the same eccentric setlist next to the likes of the Amboy Dukes, Wishbone Ash, Cactus, or The Clash. Don Henley wrote the warm introduction, as much a fan of Jim Ladd as Ladd's long been of him.

While FM radio is now mostly dead, "freeform radio" as Jim Ladd envisioned and pioneered, is alive and thriving, having been resurrected on satellite radio.  Jim Ladd, praise the Lord!, can still be heard weekdays at Deep Tracks high in the Hollywood Hills on Sirius XMs channel 27.


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3.14.2015

Terry Brooks' autograph (The Sword of Shannara)






I will gladly buy a book I wouldn't otherwise buy (meaning I'd have no interest in ever reading it) if it is autographed.  And if it is also inscribed -- are you kidding me? -- I'm so there.  And should the book I wouldn't otherwise buy be signed and inscribed.... And also happens to be an iconic title, I will eagerly snatch it off the second hand / library discard / thrift store shelves faster than you can say "bibliophile" backwards.  Even if it's just a mass market paperback with severely sun toned text blocks and a creased spine or; worse, crushed silverfish stained right into the very fibers of the first front paper.... Why even then (hell yes! that's how committed yrs. truly is!) will I still let drop my two hard earned quarters on the check out counter for it. Case in point: Terry Brooks in the first volume of his legendary The Sword of Shannara series.

"To Pat / With Magic / Terry Brooks"



Now, Pat, whoever you are or, perhaps now, maybe were, God bless you, and thank you so much for discarding your beat up book signed and inscribed by Terry Brooks.  I'm not a fan of fantasy, of course (excluding Lord of the Rings, Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast Trilogy, RAWs The Illuminatus! Trilogy, et cetera, and maybe just a handful of others I can't recall by name at the moment) but I am and always will be an aficionado of autographs.  So, thanks again, Pat, for leaving me a bit of magic by Terry Brooks to find.







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3.07.2015

"Literary Life" in China, part I: Notes from Lin Yutang's classic My Country and My People



In Lin Yutang's masterful tome on his native China, My Country and My People, originally published in 1935, he has a chapter devoted solely to China's "Literary Life".  The "Literary Life" chapter is then subdivided into eleven subsections, all of which, for my money, are long enough and densely packed enough with knowledge, history and analysis to be legitimate chapters in their own right.  Below are my notes, summaries, observations, ephemera & many excerpts from the first two subsections of "The Literary Life" chapter in My Country and My People. And know at the outset here that I am a neophyte on the subject of China's literary life, and am nevertheless attempting to read and write about a country and its people despite my woefully little knowledge on the subject. In other words, if you happen to encounter this post and are an expert on China and her Literary Life, please chime in with corrections if corrections here exist needing correction.  I won't be offended.

The copy I'm reading from is Halcyon House's 1938 translation, and not the copy pictured to the left.  My copy is missing its dust jacket (I'd normally have scanned my cover image in) and cover images of my edition of My Country and My People are available only with poor resolutions online, so I settled for the next best image I could find for the book, at left.  Lastly, before we dig in here, a very helpful resource in getting as much out of My Country and My People has been Lin YuTang's Dictionary, which was brought to my attention by my friend, the British expatriate extraordinaire, the best literary critic living in Taiwan if not the Far East, for that matter, tomcatMurr, author of The Lectern -- a man cat (or is it a cat man?) who knows China better than anybody I've ever known.... Who, in fact, probably knows China better than anyone.

~~~~~

Subsection I: A Distinction

"The Chinese make a distinction between literature that instructs and literature that pleases, or literature that is "the vehicle of truth" and literature that is "the expression of emotion".

Expository, so-called "objective" literature -- or "the literature of ideas"* -- literature that teaches a moral platitude, or somehow improves the people's minds, even though such literature be trite and/or naive is venerated in China; while "literature of the imagination" is considered second rate.  Except in the case of Poetry.

Keep in mind this black v. white distinction, the glorification of banality & the denigration of anything fictional is generally a person's public stance in China; privately? ... Look out!  The Chinese apparently, in private, love these "little arts** ... unworthy" of "the Hall of Great Literature".  Consider, too, that this over-veneration of redundant, passed-down-for-the-past 2,500 years "instructive literature," the writings that are believed (politically mandated?) to better society's minds & morals, are motivated purely by the Chinese person's fear of being called a heretic.  The fear of heresy hung over their heads like the sword of Damocles, and the fear of heresy could only mean the fear of originality.

Lin Yutang rightly believed (yes, I'm interjecting my own opinion here) that Literature of any worth must be lyrical.  He quotes Chin Shengt'an, 17th century Lit. critic, to further define his own cornerstone thought on the subject; on what makes great literature great literature, as opposed to just ordinary writing: "What is poetry but a voice of the heart? ... The ancient people {remember, this guy is saying "ancient people" from his 17th century vantage!} were not compelled to say anything, but they suddenly said something purely of their own accord.  They spoke sometimes of events, and sometimes of their own feelings, and having finished what they had to say, they took leave and departed."

Great Literature is Inspired Lyrical writing from the Heart, in other words.  For the Chinese, then, this consists mostly of Poetry.

~~~~~

Subsection II: Language and Thought

Until reading this book, I never got, among many other things, the full implications of the great divide existing between the spoken & written language of Chinese -- a divide literally between a people's language and thought -- and what that divide has resulted in for the history of China's people; namely, a history of poverty and oppression.  I also didn't get also just how alien the divide between China's spoken language and written language, between her language and thought, truly is to my Western sensibilities.  It's shocking to realize that this divide was probably exploited and even enhanced by China's scholars--at least up to 1935 it was -- keeping what I'm saying in Lin Yutang's historical context.

I took four pages of notes on this subsection and am still having a tough time wrapping my head around it enough to adequately summarize, so rather than skip the chapter altogether, let me quote the passages where I think Yutang most cogently interweaves these increasingly complex concepts ("pictorial principle" vs.  "phonetic principle," for instance) together.

"...the peculiarities of Chinese thought and literature are due simply to their possession of a so-called monosyllabic language.  The fact that the Chinese spoke in syllables like ching, chong, chang was appalling in consequences.  This monosyllabism determined the character of the Chinese writing, and the character of the Chinese writing brought about the continuity of the literary heritage and therefore even influenced the conservatism of Chinese thought.  It was further responsible for the development of a literary language quite distinct from the spoken language."

And now here's the real negative consequent historical and cultural kicker:

"This, in turn, made learning difficult and necessarily the privilege of a limited class.  The limitation of literacy..."

And now, here, (if you'll pardon my abruptly cutting off Yutang), he proceeds to blow my mind in matter-of-factly stating how something that's so basic, so pervasive, so intrinsic, so taken for granted in our Western eyes -- that is, in our thoughts & their respective representative words or symbols attached directly to them, and in the language connected to them, giving form & communicability (meaning!) to them -- being absent in Chinese thought processes, has "changed the whole organization of Chinese society and ... culture, and one sometimes wonders whether the Chinese people as a whole would be so docile and so respectful to their superiors had they spoken an inflectional language and consequently used an alphabetic language."

Now, consider the Philip K. Dick-type of novelistic opportunities, the dystopic fiction that could be written about a parallel-universe-China, had its language developed only slightly differently:

"I sometimes feel that, had the Chinese managed to retain a few more final or initial consonants in their language, not only would they have shaken the authority of Confucius to its foundations, but very possibly would have long ago torn down the political structure and, with the general spread of knowledge ... have forged ahead in other lines and given the world a few more inventions like printing ... which would have likewise affected the history of human civilization on this planet (boldness mine).

What Lin Yutang writes regarding Chinese homophones and the language's multiplicity of tones and absence of consonants and this and that and the other of chapter two, and what it all means interwoven together, I'm going to leave to the experts to parse.  Yet even though subsection II of "Literary Life" has clearly been a comprehending-stretch for me, just a tad outside my comfort zone.... Listen!  For regardless of that,  Lin Yutang could write and he's well worth the challenge.  The implications of this subsection just keep striking me how sad it is and how sad it has been for the Chinese -- the results of their vast language restrictions.... But then, on the flip side, at least one of the silver linings (though in no way am I suggesting that the silver lining is equal to or worth the consequence of constant poverty and oppression) is that the Chinese have made an art out of "mincing words" and the beauty of their terse, austere, exacting poetry (and by "exacting" I mean they are masters at choosing exactly the right word for their poetry), has been an important positive consequence and contribution to their culture and to Art, resulting directly out of that divide between their speech and written language.

* Curious that the Chinese conception of "the literature of ideas" -- that which essentially corresponds to little more than, as I've understood Yutang's take on it, cultural or political propaganda, immediately makes me, in my western view, associate the phrase with "the novel of ideas" -- an exact opposite meaning!

** Examples of the beloved "lowly arts" include Chinp'inmei (Gold-Vase-Plum), which, sounds like to me, would be the equivalent of China's Fifty Shades of Grey; and P'inhua Paochien, what Yutang termed "an equally pornographic homosexual novel".

~~~~~

Subsection III is more up my alley, dealing in the history of China's libraries and library statistics.  I'll try and get to that post soon....




2.15.2015

Portrait of An Impulsive Post I Don't Know What to Title









Pictured is The Hon. Frances Buncombe by Thomas Gainsborough . . . . . I normally don't appreciate this 18th century style of portraiture, but in pricing books this morning, listening to Real Estate's latest record Atlas, I came across an Oxford Univ. Press copy of Fanny Burney's Cecilia and, struck unexpectedly by the radiant beauty of this lovely young woman on the book's front cover, flipped the book over to find the cover illustration credits (does anybody else here ever do that?; i.e., are you a geek or geekette too?) and just felt the spontaneous need to share her. Saint Valentine still floating amourously in the air out there, maybe?

2.08.2015

Heavy Daughter Blues: Poems & Stories 1968-1986 by Wanda Coleman



Wanda Coleman didn't live long enough to win Los Angeles' official poet laureate post first inaugurated by then-mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in 2012 -- she died in 2013 -- but to fans, her de facto advocates; and, I'd argue, to her haters also (how dare Wanda malign and/or mock their sacred bovines, Maya Angelou and MLK!), it was obvious she had long been Los Angeles' unofficial poet laureate, and it was obvious whether or not she was ever officially recognized (or officially snubbed) by any mayor or other elected dumb ass.  She'll always be the reigning Poet Period ... of Watts.

Wanda Coleman's poetry was too dangerous, too daring, for a self-aggrandizing straight-laced politician to probably understand let alone endorse; too lunatic fringed for them; too edgy; too in-their-smarmy-fucking-faces; too strange; too estranged; too deranged; too ENRAGED; too I-don't-give-a-fuck-what-you-think-Assholes-how-I-relate-my-colloquial-street-slang-on-the-page-about-a-socioeconomically-squashed-place-you've-long-marginalized-ostracized-disenfranchised-with-your-MANifest-inequality-injustice-you-like-to-legislate, for any politician, no matter how well behaved, or well depraved, to publicly get behind.  Politicians lack something, as well, the levity? the self awareness? the freedom? whatever it is, perhaps just the simple wherewithal to be quite so self-effacing -- or as self critical -- as a person like Wanda Coleman.  Few critics were as unflinchingly honest in their critiquing or criticizing of Wanda Coleman as Wanda Coleman was of Wanda Coleman.  But she also mocked the criticism.  Also mocked her own rage while mocking those who criticized her for being so outraged.  She wrote many pieces that dealt with it head-on, like in....               "Wanda Why Aren't You Dead"

wanda when are you gonna wear your hair down
wanda.  that's a whore's name
wanda why ain't you rich....
why don't you lose weight
wanda why are you so angry
how come your feet are so goddamn big
can't you afford to move out of this hell hole
if i were you were you were you
wanda what is it like being black
i hear you don't like black men
tell me you're ac/dc.  tell me you're a nympho....
wanda you have no humor in you you too serious....
wanda you're ALWAYS on the attack....

Heavy Daughter Blues: Poems & Stories 1968-1986 showcases exceptionally well Wanda Coleman's development from a young, somewhat conventional poet, to the accomplished Poet she became with that instantly identifiable Voice as instantly identifiable as -- pick your favorite singer or celebrity criminal -- theirs: that black, female, persona non grata Voice of the dispossessed in the inner city, gushing out in relentless fury her characters' / her people's inarticulate and heretofore unheard individual outrage into one bitter, but beautiful, collective Voice of Outrage that could just as easily explain, poetically and powerfully, the explosions of August 11, 1965, as it could anticipate the sad helicopter closeup spectacles of April 29, 1992, at the corner of Florence and Normandie.  Wanda Coleman's voice was often violent, and it was often vilified, yet few poets of her generation ever fused their Voice to the voices of the Voiceless Victimized with as savage fucking grace as she did.  Read Roaches, The Arab Clerk, or April 15th 1985* sometime; they are all riveting (and sometimes revolting) examples of her intense gritty vignettes / short stories and visionary prose poems.  Thank God Black Sparrow Press was there to faithfully champion her for three decades after Hollywood graced her with an Emmy and then gracelessly kicked "the loud" supposedly "self righteous bitch" out.

Wanda Coleman could just as soon mock (or let one of her many narrator's mock) the "bigoted old white bitches" in line at the San Francisco bank in April 15th 1985, as she could -- or as her possibly schizophrenic speaker could in the title prose-poem of the collection, Heavy Daughter Blues -- the political and socioeconomic insufficiency of the most celebrated Dream ever dreamed in U.S. history: "i dream i dream i dream / pass the pipe--please".  I mean who but Wanda Coleman would've had the chutzpah to pass off MLKs "I Have a Dream" as a pipe dream?  Or was she merely echoing aloud what a lot of people had already been thinking quietly about the man and his unrealized legacy?  Or is equality among blacks and whites no longer a pipe dream in the U.S.?  Maybe not if we're to believe that black, female, persona non grata Voice of Heavy Daughter Blues.  Or, maybe, yes; maybe we do believe.

Difficult to decide what the Voice of Heavy Daughter Blues believes because her Voice is a multiplicity of voices, past and present.  One second, a voice can "throw the symbols" and "make reverberations" and assert "the t.v. is teaching my children hibakusha**" and, the next, another voice proclaim with such absurd and delusional conviction "i am in love with a dopefiend who sleeps under freeways" and "the postman has put a hex on my P.O. box" that you almost palpably feel the atomic shockwaves of twisted logic in Coleman's nod to Langston Hughes ripple upward off the page with such relentless mushrooming force that even the bunker you may have built on the sly to hide your pettiest prejudice behind is vaporized, exposed.  Heavy and nearly hopeless shit from Wanda Coleman, this late Blue Daughter of The American Pipe Dream.

Wanda Coleman was such an awesome enigma in life, such an absolute contradiction in so many interesting and appealing ways, is it really surprising then when in the short space of one of her most provocative poems, realities and fantasies and confabulations of both abruptly merge and blur line by line so that the only appropriate response to it is an equivocating "Yes" that boomerangs back at you its discombobulating "Nope"?

YesNo!NoYes!  I know.  I don't.

Though don't you love Wanda Coleman's response to the quandary better, when toward the end of Heavy Daughter Blues the voice of a nutty narrator "in love with a fuck freak" ruminates, turns streetwise-physicist / Ph.D. philosophy candidate, having risen from welfare to a pipe dream of tenure, and, out of the palm-tree-breezy, South-Central-sleazy, tenemented-terminal-blue, ups her live-jive's ante and satirically pontificates in a deadpan delivery the dead-end lingo of her largely academic audience who regardless of Wanda's snarkyness would still no doubt most infinitely approve: "the constant preoccupation of a sphere / is in traversing the Möbius strip"?  Shit.  I know I do!
~~~~~

* Read the complete text of "April 15th 1985" right here.
** I recommend Googling the word

1.18.2015

THIN LIZZY Post for the Uninitiated Who Only Know "The Boys are Back in Town"



Thin Lizzy were not a heavy metal band, so please don't tune out if you hate heavy metal.  They were simply a rock band; a dynamic rock band with a unique singular sound instantly recognizable the way Led Zeppelin or Queen were dynamic and unique and instantly recognizable.  They were virtuosos. They were never some sludgy, sinister, smash-mouth band like Black Sabbath (not that there's anything wrong, of course, with being a sludgy, sinister, smash-mouth band like Black Sabbath!).
Thin Lizzy's fourth studio record, 1974s Nightlife
Infused with Celtic imagery and an underdog's sensibilities, Thin Lizzy composed melodic hard rock tunes filled with warmth and humour, with clever elegant hooks.  Phil Lynott, lead singer and bassist, had a great sense of humour, and it showed in their songs and lyrics.

Thin Lizzy were huge in their homeland Ireland, as well as the UK and most of the countries on the Continent, but they never quite made it huge humongous huge in the States.  And not making it huge humongous huge in the States, in the 1970s, meant the record company's inevitable withdrawal of sponsorship and promotional support.  The band was so close -- they were like this close, right on the cusp -- of breaking big time (humongous huge) in the States in 1976, just a couple months after their Jailbreak record came out and became their first there to crack Billboard's Top 40 album chart on the strength, mostly, of their first (and what would become) only U.S. hit single, "The Boys are Back in Town."  But on the eve of a U.S. tour to support Jailbreak -- their only record, also, to reach gold/platinum status across the pond -- Phil Lynott became gravely ill and the tour had to be scrapped; the tour that would've made them Stars in the States, sadly, never materialized.  Unable to strike while the iron was hot, Thin Lizzy's iron in the U.S.A. never glowed so molten orange again like it did during those brief glorious months in 1976.  Had they toured the U.S. in support of Jailbreak, they may have inspired a similar long lasting popularity here as Rush eventually did when they toured in support of their 1976 breakthrough record, 2112; instead, Thin Lizzy's career trajectory -- speaking commercially, certainly not creatively -- had hit its peak and thereafter began a slow decline not at all dissimilar to their contemporaries, U.F.Os., sales slide -- bands, both, that should've broke huge, stayed huge (humongous huge) for years and years and lasted, but unfortunately didn't.  Though at least their phenomenal musical legacy will remain forever. No doubt I'll still be rocking out to Thin Lizzy when I'm ninety-nine, blowing out the amplifiers in my hearing aids!

Here's an early Peel Sessions recording of an underplayed and under recognized Thin Lizzy classic, "She Knows".   "She Knows" was later refined a bit for their fourth studio record, 1974s Nightlife (pictured above), but I like the energy on this rawer version better.

Phil Lynott statue, Dublin, Ireland. (Would James Joyce have loved Thin Lizzy?)

What are your favorite Thin Lizzy records and songs?

1.11.2015

Preliminary Impressions of One of the Children is Crying by Coleman Dowell



Yesterday I lucked out and found a copy of the debut novel by a writer I'd heard mentioned a time or two over the years, but otherwise had known nothing about: Coleman Dowell.  His first novel One of the Children is Crying was published in 1968 when he was already forty-two years old.  He'd been a songwriter and had some previous, notable success, here and there, on Broadway and in television.

Last night I read the first chapter of One of the Children is Crying and was impressed. Impressed enough, in fact, that I've made perhaps the dubious decision to blog about the book after having read only that -- its first chapter.  But I've read enough to know beyond any doubt, because it's so blatantly obvious to me, that Coleman Dowell wrote sensitively and brilliantly on potentially touchy subjects for his time such as homosexual relationships, alcoholism, child abuse and incest. I totally get the blurb comparisons to Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor and Carson McCullers, but do know that in Dowell's case, the comparisons are likely true and not just his publisher's wishful hype and hyperbole. Too bad the honest-to-God-true blurbs never resulted in many sales for Coleman Dowell's books.  But blame the blurbers and his publisher's marketeers for not being effusive enough in their praise, not Coleman Dowell. Blame, too, perhaps the "southern" or "southern gothic" labels that have seemed to shadow his largely unknown legacy in the limited criticism about him which has likely accomplished little more than limiting the scope of his potential and present readership rather than accurately defining the kind of writer he ever was in the first place. Because in my (now granted) limited reading of him, my first impression is that this super-talented craftsman / word-smith, Coleman Dowell, transcended his southern roots and the "southern gothic" even as One of the Children is Crying is wrought deep there and shoots out from its swampy soil.

The author Sumner Locke Elliott said of Dowell: "He is an artist.  He has an ability to project even horror with both beauty and tenderness."

One of the Children is Crying opens with a brother (Robin) receiving a call on Christmas from his sister (Erin) whom he's not spoken to in three years.  Abruptly, she relays him the bad news (though in this family I suspect it may in fact be good, no, great news), "Daddy is dead. Will you come home?"

Come home?  Robin'll need to board a train.  But, first, he'll need to get dressed.  First, he'll need to brood...

"Buttons and shoelaces took longest.  He found it endlessly interesting that the flooded brain of a drunk could philosophize, compose poetry and music, remember with terrible clarity, while its servants --fingers, feet-- had to be cajoled, with, at best, childish results.  He visualized alcohol as the Great Regressor; finally, if he is lucky, the alcoholic regresses to a place of fluids and silences; until then, there are buttons and shoelaces --but no neckties; he could not take on a necktie..."

One of the Children is Crying is going to be good. I'll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, check out Coleman Dowell's page at New Directions.

1.04.2015

The Ten Best Short Stories I Read in 2014




"The Inner Room"
by Robert Aickman,
from The Wine-Dark Sea.









Have you ever wanted to live in a doll house inside a remote gothic-like mansion in a forgotten English moor?  So have I!  Swear this story would've made a great Twilight Zone episode.

"Taxi Driver, Minus Robert DeNiro"
by Fernando Ampuero,
anthologized in the excellent The Vintage Book of Latin American Stories.
A very different take on what amounts to human-trafficking ... of drunks.

"Ben-Tobith"
by Leonid Andreyev,
collected in Jorge Luis Borges' classic anthology The Book of Fantasy.
Set in Jerusalem just prior to and literally on the night Jesus Christ was crucified.  Poor man had a maddening toothache that nearly drove him to jump off his roof, to suicide, the very moment the three "malefactors" (Jesus & the two thieves) were being beaten and whipped, driven by the enraged mob up the same lane where he lived, carrying their crosses, toward the summit of Golgotha.  Weirdest thing.  The man's throbbing toothache, heretofore not even pacified by the then popular home remedy of "rat droppings", went away just like that, lickety split, the very hour Christ was crucified.

"The Shunammite"
by Ines Arredondo,
 in Underground River and Other Stories.









I'd rate this story as the best one I read this year.  Find a copy of Arredondo's book, or find an anthology that has it (there are many, because it's apparently one of the most anthologized stories ever published by a Mexican writer) & hopefully be as mesmerized by it -- as creeped out by it -- as I was.  A young woman's sense of family duty is exploited to the extreme by her supposedly "dying" uncle, who twists and then perverts her loyalty in a way unimaginable and shocking.

"The Church of No Reason"
by Andrea Barrett,
published in American Short Fiction, Spring 1991

"Night Talk in a Cabin"
by Nagai Kafū,
collected in American Stories.









"Swans"
by Janet Frame,
collected in the anthology Some Other Country: New Zealand's Best Short Stories.









"Friendship"*
by Steve Katz,
collected in 43 Fictions.
The funniest, most darkly twisted story I read this year. It was hysterical black comedy to the max, the way I like it. Imagine what a writer with a twisted, demented sensibility could do with this opening paragraph below and then multiply that imagination by at least ten or thirteen.

"My friend Sadie was a closet cannibal and that was why I introduced her to Herman in the first place.  At the time I thought it was best for people to get these propensities out in the open, at least on some level.  Express yourself.  Let it all hang out.  I thought Herman might do that for her because among all my friends he was the one who tended to be most willing, even driven, to sacrifice himself."

*originally collected in Stolen Stories, but I read it in what's like the equivalent of The Portable Steve Katz -- 43 Fictions.

"House of the Sleeping Beauties"
by Yasanari Kawabata,
in House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories.

"Sign"
by an online friend,
an unpublished story, though likely soon to be.

"Thunderstruck"
by Elizabeth McCracken,
in Thunderstruck & Other Stories.







In the beginning of the story, both parents are disconnected from their daughter's reality in ways I get: they're both shocked when Helen sneaks out for a nitrous oxide party and is brought home by the police.  Helen's mother, Laura, interrogates Helen with the who what where when & hows, but not the whys:  "Laura wanted to know everything.  No, that wasn't true.  She wanted to know nothing, she wanted from Helen only consolation…." Ignorance is bliss--I get that.  But rather than address the reality of their daughter sneaking out & using drugs; rather than ever analyzing why Helen is doing these things, they jump straight to how can we fix this problem right now, and the next morning they decide that fleeing to Paris is the answer.  And that I don't really get though I can still sort of imagine some parents being that screwy with their discipline.  And McCracken's narrator is so good at letting the parents rationalize their Paris decision, you almost believe, reading it, that it might work:

"The plan was to disrupt their lives, a jolt to Helen's system before school started again in the fall.  The city would be strange and beautiful, as Helen herself was strange and beautiful.  Perhaps they'd understand her there.  Perhaps the problem all this time was that her soul had been written in French."

But it doesn't work.  Helen behaves the same way in Paris right under her parent's noses --surprise surprise-- until one night she winds up in the ICU with serious head trauma.  Finally, when it's almost too late, the father, Wes, experiences a parental epiphany and tells his comatose daughter bedside that he wants to know everything, all her secrets, he wants to just plain 'ol know her for a change, and that she can tell him anything.  But not so with Laura.  She wishes her daughter had rather died than be kept alive on life support.  And even when Helen comes off life support, and is conscious but unable to talk or move very much unassisted; even though Helen is making progress in her recovery, albeit slowly, it's still not good enough (or maybe it's just Helen isn't a plain good enough daughter) for Laura.  Laura's lack of hope, faith, belief in her daughter, and how over the top it went -- wishing she had just died when she struck her head -- is what I wasn't able to imagine could exist in the mindset of a parent, being one myself ...

Such a thought provoking story, and I zeroed in, above, on merely one tangential aspect from it.