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IMG_0211On this snowy day in March, when my hometown Philadelphia is pretending to be Boston and Boston is pretending to be Baffin Island, I’m taking a break from shoveling two sidewalks (office and home) and inventing ways to torture the groundhog who predicted this weather.

Now would be a perfect time for reading a novel. Lately, though, I’ve been pondering the frequent reactions I get when I recommend a recent novel to friends or acquaintances.

Sometimes it’s a pained, put-upon look, as if I’d suggested they shovel the snow from my 100-foot driveway. (Strictly a metaphor; my driveway is only 6 feet.)

Sometimes it’s an unbelieving, disdainful grimace as if I’d offered tickets to a Justin Bieber concert.

Sometimes it’s even worse: a repulsed glare as if I’d dragged my friend to an expensive restaurant for a feast of earthworms, sycamore bark and raw mutton. (Metaphor again: Philly doesn’t boast such a restaurant—yet.)

The people I’m talking about are urbane, well-educated folk who must, at one time or other, have read a novel. Why does the idea repel them so much now? I’ve come up with several possible explanations.

  • Middlebrows like me, they need all their spare time for watching British costume dramas. Maybe, like me, they’re still trying to figure out why any eligible bachelors tolerate Mary Crawley.
  • Implying that a friend would read a book for fun is an insult, really. It’s like saying your haircut is so perfectly 1974.
  • Given the dire condition of the world, they may agree with Elena Ferrante’s character Franco Mari, a political activist who declares to his ex-girlfriend, “[T]his, objectively, is not the moment for writing novels” (from Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay).
  • They may see contemporary novels as gimmicky and trivial. Partly true.
  • They may see contemporary novels as wordy, opaque, unfocused and boring. Also partly true.
  • It’s a pain to read a lot of text on a phone, and what other way is there to read?
  • If the friend is male, he probably views novel-reading as beneath his serious manly dignity, like Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice: “Mr. Bennet was glad to take his guest into the drawing-room again, and, when tea was over, glad to invite him to read aloud to the ladies. Mr. Collins readily assented, and a book was produced; but, on beholding it (for everything announced it to be from a circulating library), he started back, and begging pardon, protested that he never read novels.”

Hmmm. …

You know, after all that, I’ve convinced myself it’s foolish to waste time on fiction. I think my companion has a better idea for a wintry afternoon.

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ConeyIsland_frontcoverRGBCleaver Magazine has been ramping up its review section, and today there’s an excellent review of a book I love, We’ll Go to Coney Island, a novel in stories by Barbara Scheiber (Sowilo Press, 2014). The reviewer, Ashlee Paxton-Turner, is given plenty of space (more than 1,500 words) to discuss the work in detail, and she’s quite perceptive.

Early on, Paxton-Turner tells the remarkable story of the Walker Evans photo used on the cover. The book’s linked stories are loosely based on the author’s own family history, especially her mother, her charismatic and philandering father, and her stepmother. While she was writing the stories, she happened to see the Evans Coney Island photo in an article about an upcoming exhibition. Though the man in the picture has his back turned to the camera, Scheiber instantly recognized him: her father! with his mistress (later her stepmother)!

That’s a great background tale. The stories in the book itself are just as good, and the arrangement adds to their power. Chapters set in 1915–1916, when the main character Minna is a young girl, interweave with chapters from much later years, in which Minna becomes a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Here is Paxton-Turner’s take on the technique:

Scheiber uses the form to tell two parallel narratives—past and present—that taken separately are rather linear. Once she puts them together, the linearity is distorted. This creates emotional resonance: the past and its formative memories does not yield or relinquish its hold on the present; it continues to resurface, even when Minna, suffering from Alzheimer’s, is left in the barren room of a nursing home.

Right. The past informs the present and vice versa, as much as in any time-travel sci-fi novel.

One other note of interest: The author, a first-time novelist, is in her nineties. I take that to mean that for all of us who have been dull and unimaginative for decades, there is still hope.

The book cover above links to the Amazon page for the book. Here is the link to the Cleaver review.

Elvis and the Season of Light

December 16, 2014

Photo by Ed Roberts via Wikimedia Commons

I’m pretty much a bah-humbug person, especially now that Santa sends me spam emails. (Really, Big Guy? I’m much more likely to open an offer of gifts from someone called Ashley or Courtney or Svetlana. Try changing your name.) Yet, though I refuse to celebrate in an outward fashion, I do love the so-called “spirit” of the winter holidays. Last year about this time I wrote a little essay about the “season of depression,” which ended up on the Superstition Review blog in February. That post mentioned in passing a church tradition of lighting candles on Christmas Eve, typical of the way many (or most?) religions counter the winter darkness by celebrating light. In fact, Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, begins tonight.

This year, then, I’ll post a passage relating to our reverence for light and all that it suggests. What follows is an excerpt from my novel The Big Happiness, which I’m preparing for republication as a Kindle ebook. A kind of warped love story, the novel features two protagonists who are each disabled in some way. Allison Roarty (a.k.a. Allison Wonderland) is a 45-year-old, divorced, wacky, sexually adventurous, somewhat overweight alcoholic with brain damage. By sheer accident she meets Leigh Berry, a gangling, half-blind, reclusive, 62-year-old devotee of ancient music. She seduces him and the novel is off and running—or rambling, stumbling and blundering after these weird characters.

Leigh’s language, like his mind, is often archaic and tortured. Through his relationship with Allison he has to learn to communicate again. He also has to deal with the “light,” both literal and figurative, that she insists on shining into the dim haunts of his life. One of her first acts is to throw open his curtains, and being an oddly mystical sort—though an atheist—he begins to suspect that the Light he encounters has meaning for him. On Christmas morning in Allison’s apartment, he wakes before she does and senses rays of a peculiar color—a silvery, otherworldly blue-white—on the windowsill. He’s intrigued and also scared, afraid he won’t live up to what Allison, and the God he doesn’t believe in, are demanding of him.

Then Allison wakes up. The two exchange presents, fool around in bed and listen to Elvis Presley’s recording of “White Christmas.” (It’s Allison, of course, who’s an Elvis fan—she “loved him even before he was dead.”) At last the lovers decide to venture outside:

She yawned, stood up, kissed him and proposed breakfast. “What say we splurge, sweetie? You think that coffee shop around the corner’s open today? Let’s go look. I could use a huge stack of pancakes and I think my Aunt Jemima mix has bugs in it—at least it did a few months ago.”

She dressed quickly and they bundled in their coats and gloves. Down the steps they went, arm in arm, out the door to the sidewalk. But there Allison jerked to a stop and grabbed him with both hands. “My God, look what happened! Careful, don’t fall—there’s ice all over. See it? The whole street’s coated! The rain must’ve froze, why didn’t somebody tell us?”

Leigh tried to peer about but he had forgotten his opticals. That odd silver light glittered everywhere.

“See the streetlight pole? That’s ice on it all the way up, like a, like a real cold condom, honey. It’s beautiful. The city’s deserted, no one’s going out in this. It’s all ours! Let’s pretend everybody else is dead. I mean, except the cook who’s gonna make our pancakes, he better be alive and working today or I’ll kill him.”

She nudged Leigh a step or two forward and pointed. “Look, right next to the building it’s dry, so if we take it real slow and stay close to the wall we can walk. You grab me and I’ll hold you. Those sparkly humps are parked cars, baby. That one that’s like a frozen little man, it must be the fire hydrant ’cause I don’t remember any midgets on this block. This is so cool! Hey, it’s a white Christmas, or close to white, just like Elvis said, sugar.”

The slicing crystal light reverberated in Leigh’s eyes, producing scattered bright spots, ghosts, shadows. He was reassured to learn of a meteorological explanation for the disconcerting rays through the curtains, but the direct glare was most confusing. He crept along beside the building with one arm up to shield himself.

Unearthly quiet in the city. The still air wrapping him in its cloak of silver wintriness. A dream of the afterlife come to this planet in overpowering brilliance.

“Neat-o,” exclaimed Allison when they eased round the corner. “That tree’s got, like, every tiny branch covered in ice.” She was suddenly gone a moment, during which he closed his eyes tight and faced the wall. Then she was back, tugging on one of his hands. “Here, feel this, slip off the glove so you can touch it, it’s so perfect. Trust me, Leigh, take your glove off, it won’t bite you.”

In his hand he felt a thin, hard, angular shape, sucking frostily at his fingers.

“It’s just a twig,” she said. “Off the tree. But see how perfect the ice coats it? It sparkles like diamonds. Or rhinestones anyway.”

The sharp light winked up from his palm, teasing him. A blued bodiless light of the soul—was it indeed God’s own?

“Now you have to admit,” she said, “Elvis can do magic, honey.”

Whether from heaven, humans or the spirit of Elvis, the lights of this season can indeed be magical—and challenging. May we all try to live up to their promise.

Dear Author

November 4, 2014

One advantage of publishing in the distinguished Valparaiso Fiction Review, as I did earlier this year, is that Valparaiso University’s system sends you periodic updates about the readership. Here’s the latest message:

ValpoReportHey, that’s more people than I know, so it must mean that an actual Public out there is reading my work. Yay!

Just a minute, though. A “download” isn’t necessarily a reading. I sometimes download stuff myself, glance at it, say “What the hell do I want this for?” and discard it. How many people are trashing my work in that way? How dare they!

And 181 total downloads, that’s not much, is it? Hardly a bestseller.

Possibly this is a sad indication of the limited readership of literary magazines.

However, it’s also possible that other stories in the same issue are being downloaded much more often. That would be heartening. Wait, no it wouldn’t–who’s getting downloaded more than me, and why? Are some authors in the 200s, even 300s? Whatta they got that I don’t?

Maybe the counter isn’t right. Do I trust this technology? No way!

Now I’m all anxious.

Well, look, being listed in Valpo “Scholar,” that’s an honor, right? In there with all them university perfessers. For someone who hasn’t been a scholar in many years, that’s pretty, like, awesome.

OK, I’m at peace now.

But hurry up, number 182–put down the stupid comics and read my story!

I’m hastening to do a new post to bump down the appalling “catterel” of my last one. It wouldn’t do for newcomers to this site to peg me as a terrible poet. Okay, that happens to be true, but I commit poetry so seldom that I would hate to think it defines me. (I suppose murderers could say the same thing.)

Inquirer Review ClipLuckily, I have something to say today: an excellent review of my friend Mark Lyons’s Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines appears in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The reviewer is Kevin Grauke, himself an accomplished writer of short stories, and he goes into more detail than I did in my post of October 16. As Grauke says, “While the image of the descanso may tie the stories together thematically, what truly unifies the collection is Lyons’ impressive ability to capture the voices of a wide range of characters. He’s so good that readers may find themselves wishing all 12 stories, rather than nine of 12, had been written in first person.”

I do hope this book gets the attention it deserves. Click the image to go to the review; click here to see the page on Amazon; and click here for a video clip of Mark reading from the book and talking about its background.

A Philistine’s Complaint

October 31, 2014

Keats

John Keats, looking poetic in a portrait by Joseph Severn

In my day job I often work with contemporary poetry that I don’t understand. Far too much a prose guy, I like passages that start here and go there, and if detours are taken along the way, fine, but I want to be able to look back and see where I came from, trace the route, and if all I see is a jumble of trees and broken glass and pizzas and penguins and other stuff that doesn’t seem to belong on the same street or even in the same country—and to me much recent poetry is like that—I wonder why I began the trip. In other words, I want poetry to be like that preceding sentence, difficult to diagram but coherent.

Clearly, then, I’m an idiot when it comes to present-day poems, and the following catterel* could be called “A Philistine’s Complaint.” Instead, being pretentious, I chose a clumsy echo of Keats for the title. Today being Halloween, I present this as a tiny contribution to our holiday of horrors.

*Catterel, of course, is verse not good enough to qualify as doggerel.

On First Looking into the Esteemed Poet’s Latest Volume

I don’t get this poem, do you?

The lines skitter

this way and

that, with no reason I can discern

and naturally no

rhyme, except from time

to time, seemingly at

random

and the images dance even more

W * I * L * D * L * Y

about in fervid or perhaps ironic

f r e n z y     , punctuated

oddly:

and though I mildly admit my slavery

to logical thought, it’s hard to guess

what this mess

might signify.

It’s profound, I’m sure. In a way, dreamlike.

Yet in earlier centuries the author of such tum-

bling imaginations

would have been burned or be-

headed for witchcraft. Surely this punishment is too dire

for a poet who

teaches other poets

at a poetically

ivied university,

and yet one could hope for

a true witch to boil

this cauldron of wordy gratifications,

stir it, curse it,

drain it

down

revealing a single tough

idea

stuck

to the bottom, like a burnt strip

of meat.

That, I could get my teeth into.

Descansos

October 16, 2014

Brief Eulogies CoverDescansos is the Mexican Spanish term for roadside shrines, the kind long seen along highways in the American Southwest. These small, spontaneous memorials have spread to cities, where people pay respect to a shooting victim or a bicyclist killed by a car with an arrangement of appropriate objects, such as flowers, photographs, signs, teddy bears. We’ve seen them all too often lately on the news if not in our own neighborhoods.

Some of the stories in Mark Lyons’s Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines are about descansos, and some are essentially descansos themselves, memorials to all manner of troubled folk, from a hobo to a war vet to a lonely kid who raises pigeons. The settings range all over America, even to Mexico and Japan, and they’re packed with remarkable imagery that made me think, Yes, that’s exactly right. Here’s one example, from a story about a woman whose husband has periodic outbursts of violence:

She can sense the rages coming, the way Seamus [a black lab] knows when a storm is moving in. A certain electricity in the air, a rise in the ozone level, a climb in atmospheric pressure. Then the color goes out of the room, like watching a movie in black and white. And just before—just before is this unbearable quiet, this silence, a space where direction could change, but won’t. [p. 187]

Those instants when the world loses all color and sound… Yes, we’ve all been there.

Though his protagonists are wounded in some way, Lyons resists attempts to sentimentalize or typecast them. For instance, that violent guy who beats his wife? When he’s not in a rage, he rescues wounded animals. And the wife, does she follow the typical pattern of resisting counselors who try to pull her free of the situation? No, she doesn’t bother with counseling; she handles the matter herself, in dramatic fashion. (Sorry, no spoiler.)

Since the author is a friend of mine, I fear that further praise of Brief Eulogies would be sentimental in a way the stories are not. Yet I do want to mention one other feature of this collection: an Afterword that discusses the “seeds” of each story. Normally I’m bored with writers talking about their craft. It’s the fiction I care about, not the mulling over it. In this case, though, the brief personal vignettes the author shares are almost as moving as the stories themselves.

For a quick introduction to Brief Eulogies, here’s a video clip of the author reading at the book launch.

Drawing from Life

August 19, 2014

Robin Black’s novel Life Drawing is remarkable in many ways. So many reviewers have praised the book already that there’s no need to add to the chorus, but I want to note one element in particular.

A baLife Drawing by Robin Blackd thing happens in this book. A big, bad thing, with a clear victim and a clear perpetrator. But what makes the act unusual is that everyone is guilty in some sense. The victim bears some guilt. So do three other people who did not commit or encourage or sanction the bad thing but nevertheless helped move it toward fruition.

That strikes me as more true to life than we care to acknowledge on a daily basis. We may nod at the author’s wisdom, but in real life we prefer to get outraged. We like to draw hard lines between the innocent and the guilty, point our fingers at the bad guys and clamor for justice. For just a moment, think of how often we do this when discussing, say, Palestine, gun violence, political rebellions, multigenerational poverty, _____ [insert controversial subject of your choice].

Ms. Black’s one sin against realism in Life Drawing is that she allows her characters to recognize how much they have all contributed to the evil. In real life, we won’t admit any such thing.

If only we could be as smart as our best novelists …

Reading DUBLINERS

June 25, 2014

[In honor of this month’s 100th anniversary of Joyce’s Dubliners, here’s a guest post from Peggy Gordon, whose relationship to the blogger shall remain unspecified.]

DublinersA few nights ago when Letterman was over but I was not quite ready to go to bed, I spent some time browsing on the overburdened bookcases in our family room. With the lifetime collections of two English majors in the room, I can always find something I want to read or read again—especially now when the first reading could possibly have been over 50 years ago. I came across Ulysses, which has been on my bucket list for many years, but did not feel up to that challenge yet. Luckily, Dubliners was right next to it, and I had just seen or heard a suggestion from some scholar who said that if you want to read Ulysses you should read Dubliners first. Bingo, I had found my book.

The copy of Dubliners that I now held in my hands had been printed in 1963. Its overall condition was what the online booksellers call “fair”: the pages were fairly yellow but—horror of horrors—the previous owner had taken voluminous notes on every story in the collection. Words were circled, sentences underlined, paragraphs called out with asterisks, and long summaries written in the white space at the end of each story. This was all done in sloppy handwriting in light pencil. Much of it was faded and hard to read. The book would not even merit the usual 75-cent paperback purchase price on Half.com. But lucky me … the previous owner was my husband, a studious young lad back in the ’60s, who clearly had taken a course on Joyce (and done very well in it, I’m sure). So I was presented with the exciting adventure of reading not just Joyce but also my husband’s annotations—whether notes from his Berkeley professor’s lecture or his own thoughts on the story or what were clearly my husband’s comments on what the professor had just said. This turned out to be a multilayered adventure indeed.

And what of Joyce readers in the future? When the Kindles and Nooks have been replaced and the backup files forgotten, how will the aging spouses or children or grandchildren share the reading experience of a great book in this way? Oh, the loss if the world really does become completely digitized!. But my luck continues: my husband read—and annotated—Ulysses that same semester, and I might just get to that item on my bucket list next.

While waiting impatiently for the copy of Robin Black’s novel that I preordered last July (damn these publishers and their extended marketing campaigns!), I saw that she’d published a new story on Five Chapters, and I went to it eagerly. Called “The Rabbi’s Wife,” it’s as well-crafted and psychologically complex as the stories in her first book, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This—and even more provocative.

To talk about it, I have to give away the surprise twist that emerges, so if you haven’t read it yet, go do that now, at this link. Then come back and argue with me about it. Because I’ve been arguing in silence with the author, and the main character, Hannah, and myself for several hours now, and I need somebody else to direct my rantings at.

OK, you’ve read it? So you know the story is about Hannah, nearing 70, widowed a few years ago when Ben, her rabbi husband, died. She stopped going to synagogue after his death and cut her ties with the congregation except for her best friend Myra. She wants to remember Ben as the man she married when they were both “graduate students in psychology, non-believers,” before he betrayed her, in a way, by becoming religious, essentially forcing her—though she agreed to it—into the role of “rabbi’s wife,” with all the public duties that entails: “Part of loving Ben meant accepting a kid of amputation of self.” And yet she realizes that she now is betraying him, in a way, by stripping him in her thoughts of the rabbi-role he cherished.

So far, this is typical of Black’s stories in its subtle moral insight and sharp analysis of the myriad small treacheries of everyday life. I can’t think of any contemporary writer who is better at this kind of vision. But then the story goes to another level as we learn more about Hannah’s current situation.

The immediate occasion of the story is Myra’s funeral—Hannah’s close friend and confidante has died suddenly. At the shiva, the gathering at Myra’s house, Hannah empathizes with Myra’s ex–daughter in law, who recently divorced Myra’s son. The young woman is too good for the son, and Myra had supported her in breaking free. As the story of the young people comes out, we learn more of Hannah and Myra, and we see that Hannah has a breaking-free for herself in mind.

Hannah has been dating a man, Peter, for eight months now. She likes him, even enjoys having him in her bed, where he forges “a shelter into which she, the old tired she, could disappear.” But now he has been diagnosed with lung cancer and given two years to live—the same prognosis her late husband was given. Having suffered through the years of chemo, surgery and radiation with her husband, and then the inevitable grueling death, Hannah doesn’t feel she can do it again with Peter. Myra, her confidante, urged her to break off with him immediately: “The fact that you were sleeping together doesn’t indenture you to him.” He has children, Myra pointed out. You’re not his wife, Myra argued. “He’s a perfectly nice man, but you do not owe him this.”

Now Myra is suddenly dead and Peter is waiting for Hannah to come to him after the funeral. This nice man—a “genial man,” a “gentle being”—expects her to stay with him through his crisis. But as she sits alone in Myra’s bedroom gathering her thoughts, Hannah determines that she will not. She refuses to stomach another excruciating death. Life is unfair, she knows, and “she will conspire in the cruelty it brings.” She marches out on the way to Peter’s house, where her “newly ruthless self” will tell him, no doubt in the kindest possible terms, that she’s through with him and he’ll have to find others to help him die.

Finishing the story, which I read on a printout, I tossed the pages down in a small spasm of disgust. Hannah values her own comfort and sense of identity over the needs of her dying lover. At first thought, this seems too easy an assertion of the primacy of women’s rights over obligations to oppressive males.

But it’s not easy, of course. Hannah wishes deeply that she were not in this position. She doesn’t admire herself for deciding to be selfish for once. Eight months, the length of her relationship with Peter, is a terribly ambiguous amount of time: beyond casual, in our current way of assessing these things, but nowhere near an ironclad commitment.

And I’ve skipped over some of the details that deepen the story: the profusion of funerals that the rabbi’s wife attended over the years, the sense that there was always a death on the horizon; Hannah’s negotiations with Ben about the public role she would play when he became a rabbi; some insights into Myra’s character that enrich the advice she gives to Hannah. But it comes down to Hannah’s choice to stay with Peter or abandon him, a choice fraught with moral and psychological angst.

It’s interesting that when we consider such matters on a large scale, our sense of morality tends to shift. Should a people under the sway of a relatively benign but oppressive foreign power value freedom over loyalty, even if obtaining freedom means cracking some skulls? Yes, we said in the American Revolution. Yes, we would still say today. We will sacrifice lives (especially those of others) for freedom and self-determination. Personally, when I think about matters on this scale, a vague utilitarian calculation prevails: if, in the long run, there will be more happiness with freedom, then…

On the personal level the moral sense doesn’t, and probably shouldn’t, yield to utilitarianism, and it’s harder to see justice in Hannah’s behavior. Yet it’s hard to blame her either. We can line up arguments for and against her:

For Hannah:

She surely doesn’t deserve the agony of nursing Peter to his death. Especially so soon after doing the same for Ben, her long-time husband.

Against Hannah:

Practically no one deserves the suffering life metes out. And Hannah’s total lifetime suffering, added up, doesn’t seem like a horrifying amount. She has had children she loved with a husband she loved; she has had friends in the congregation; she had her special friend, Myra. Yes, she lived a lie in some sense, but who doesn’t, in some sense?

For Hannah:

After surrendering to her husband’s desire to become a rabbi—because it amounts to that, ultimately, a surrender, even though we don’t see what particular dreams of her own she had to give up—she is not required to surrender to any other man’s needs.

Against Hannah:

Of course she’s not required to take care of Peter—and perhaps he’s wrong to assume she will—but we’re talking about what she ought to do. She deliberately chooses to be cruel to him to make her own life easier. She is not being asked to surrender anything except her own pleasure. That is selfishness, not good behavior.

How many more pro-con arguments could we list? Five, ten? Dozens?

I’m irritated with Robin Black for writing this story, and dazzled that she has created a text that provokes such dense reflection. I’ll keep thinking about the rabbi’s wife for a long while, and if I ever meet that old lady, I may scold her or hug her, or both.