Monday, April 28, 2008
Sunday, April 27, 2008
Friday, April 25, 2008
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
That's a beautiful poem, one I've taught in many a literature class.
To read a really very dirty poem by W.H. Auden, one that a NY Times Book reviewer deemed too dirty to print, click here. But before you click, know that it's pretty graphic. According to one reader, it's "like a Penthouse Forum letter, except in lively verse, and with no women. It’s sort of great, and also sort of cheesy and awful, and also occasionally hilarious."
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Monday, April 21, 2008
Sunday, April 20, 2008
Sunday, April 13, 2008
Just there is tension between what’s transient and what’s lasting, there is conflict in this story as Brandt’s characters explore the push and pull between the present and the past. Sarah tries to re-connect with her stoic brother; she tries to sort through her memories of a distant father. When Henry, a man haunted by his own sad past, is hired on at the farm, he recognizes in Sarah a person as lonely and longing for connection as he is.
In Brandt’s story, there is likewise tension between sound and silence, between the living and the dead. The farm is a place where “you won’t find peace, but you will find quiet,” where the loudest noise is the roar of a tractor, snarling dogs, and gunshot. The quietest sounds are Sarah and Henry’s wordless pain—Sarah self-mutilates, Henry won’t talk about his dead wife and child. Dead deer, dead sheep, a dead dog, old grudges, old hurts, closed-up hearts. Sarah’s brother Peter says he is “careful not to love too much of anything.”
But ultimately, “Dog Year” is a story about healing wounds—physical and mental, spiritual and emotional. Melissa Brandt has written a powerful story about holding on— to the family farm, but even more to the possibility that someone might be both stupid enough and smart enough to love you in all your fragile human ways.
Toni Kay Cole is one of those rare writers who is unafraid to take risks in her work, whether in form, voice or content. In many of her stories, cultures clash. Her story “Water Mommies” centers on a horrible event – the accidental death of two young boys in a neighbor’s pool. But instead of lapsing into melodrama, Cole uses this story to show moments of great beauty even in times of great suffering.
But Cole is never didactic. Her writing, while always rich and layered and meaningful, can also be full of joy and humor. Her character Maddie is a feisty, spunky, unapologetically smart Chicago girl. Reminiscent of Toni Cade Bambara’s bright and observant narrators, Maddie experiences the ups and downs of adolescent friendships and a troubled relationship with her kind-but-largely absent father. Maddie’s ongoing battles with her pregnant mother Theresa over her hair, her clothes, her determinedly “ungirly” behaviors and attitudes are a funny and complex exploration of race, gender, and class.
Cole has created a world of God-fearing mothers and fearless daughters; but also women who want more than what’s been offered to them, women who know what they want, woman who can articulate their frustrations and their desires with equal clarity. Jamey, the narrator of “Early Sunday Morning,” is having an affair with her church deacon. “When we’re around one another everything is sweet,” she says, “we use the word all the time, and it matters none that we both probably taste like rock salt in between God’s teeth. But who can understand this unordinary love? No God, Jesus, mother, seething congregation or prime and proper wife because this kind of juice is tainted, but healing just the same.”
Cole’s prose is jazzy, lyrical, quotable—the kind of writing where you mean to underline only your very favorite lines and phrases but then find you’ve underlined everything—but the plots and themes come out of the writer’s intimate understanding of her characters, her love for the people who live and breath in the world she’s created. I look forward to making space for Ms. Cole’s books on my shelf.
Hoss Schumacher, the protagonist of Bryan Johnson’s novel Appleknockers is a man who goes to work clean but comes home dirty. With this book, Johnson enters the tradition of working class literature. Early American novels in this genre – The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells or McTeague by Frank Norris are distant kin while Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool and Russell Banks’ Continental Drift are more contemporary cousins. In each of these works, an average guy of average intelligence is in pursuit of the American dream: money, yes, and the things that money can buy, but also respect, security, dignity. In each of these works, that average guy is knocked down. Dignity is something he wants, but outside forces suggest dignity is not something he deserves.
But Johnson grants his characters dignity by telling their tales with care and compassion; he is never didactic, but he is frequently very funny. In prose that is clear and clean, Johnson interweaves four stories: there’s Hoss, an unemployed construction worker who thinks setting up a meth lab will be the solution to all of his problems ; there’s his wife Tegan, smart and quiet, lonely and obese; there’s Burnett, only nineteen but already aware of his life’s limitations; Shelly, whose poetic pseudo-intellectualism serves to hide her own insecurities.
It’s no accident that the events of this novel take place over the Fourth of July as each character struggles for independence from demeaning fathers, from humiliating jobs, from drinking too much, daydreaming too much, eating too much, from spending too much time dwelling on the past. Johnson’s book poses questions about the American Dream: does it even exist? Did it ever exist?
Friday, April 11, 2008
Penguin's Knack with Breakout Paperbacks
The AP celebrates "those paperback sensations" that come every year from the likes of Sue Monk Kidd, Khaled Hosseini, Kim Edwards, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. (Their five books in paperback have sold a total of 13 million copies tracked by Bookscan alone.) "They don't appear to have a lot in common except that none has won major awards or sold brilliantly in hardcover or was written by anyone famous. It could be explained as coincidence but for one important connection—the publisher: Penguin Group."
The article says: "Relying on luck, instinct and determination, Penguin has mastered the paperback blockbuster, taking a book already out in hardcover and giving it the kind of promotion once reserved for a new release: prominent store placement, author tours, online marketing, appeals to book clubs and community reading organizations."
Paperback sales head Norman Lidofsky says, "There's no magic, no crystal balls. The books grow organically and then we focus on it and never stop. We've coined a phrase, 'These books should be brought up during every sales call, every account, every time.'" According to the AP, "booksellers say the latest in the Penguin line is Kate Jacobs' THE FRIDAY KNITTING CLUB."
Thursday, April 10, 2008
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
Poll Asks, Name Your Favorite Book
Harris Interactive surveyed American adults to find out "What is your favorite book of all time?" The answers:
1. The Bible
2. Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
3. Lord of the Rings (series), by J.R.R. Tolkien
4. Harry Potter (series), by J.K. Rowling
5. The Stand, by Stephen King
6. The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown
7. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
8. Angels and Demons, by Dan Brown
9. Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand
10. Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
Monday, April 7, 2008
Friday, April 4, 2008
— 2008 Robert Wright Awards —
Judge’s comments: “These stories, ‘Things He Doesn’t Tell You’ and ‘No Place for a Child,’
well up from deep inside each female narrator’s psyche—almost as if we are privileged to overhear her talking to herself—yet the stories are vivid and clear, the characters complex, the prose engaging. Lindsay Schacht understands the form of the short story, and she enjoys experimenting with it, pushing it in fascinating and original ways.”
Second Place—$750 Jorge Evans —for poetry—
Judge’s comments: “Jorge Evans’s poems are intelligent, informed by interesting reading, and steeped in the Midwest. His muses—Emily, ethereal and ghostly, and Rachel, sensual and earthy—help explain the range and depths of his work. A few favorites: ‘Ladybugs,’ ‘Twilight of the Idols’ and ‘Breaking and Entering.’”
Third Place—$500 Dan DeWolf —for fiction—
Judge’s comments: “In ‘Between You and Me,’ Dan DeWolf explores the loss of innocence that coming of age requires. In this case, the young narrator confronts the dark and secret life his father has kept from the family, and in doing so, he discovers much about himself as well as a smidgeon of compassion.”
Honorable Mention Lesley Arimah —for fiction—
Judge’s comments: “In Lesley Arimah’s ‘Weathering Heights,’ a mother and the narrator-daughter hone the con of slipping-tripping-falling for money, and the ill-gained payoffs drive them into a vagabond life of ups and downs. This is a humorous, sometimes heartbreakingly-so, tale with a somewhat unexpected and edgy ending.”
The Judge: Gary Thompson studied with Richard Hugo and Madeline DeFrees at the University of Montana, and taught in the creative writing program at California State University, Chico, for nearly thirty years. His poems have been published in a wide range of magazines, from American Poetry Review to Writers’ Forum; several anthologies; and three collections, most recently On John Muir’s Trail from Bear Star Press. To the Archaeologist Who Finds Us will be published by Turning Point Books in October. He lives with his wife, Linda, on San Juan Island, and likes to think of himself as the novice skipper of a modest boat, an old trawler named Keats.
The 2008 Competition: There were 31 entries this year.
The Awards: Open to graduates and undergraduates alike, the Robert Wright Awards competition is intended to spotlight and encourage the creative work of Minnesota State University students. Several previous winners have gone on to place book-length work with major publishers. Primary funding for the program comes from an endowment set up in memory of former Department of English professor and chair, Robert C. Wright, with additional support for second- and third-place prizes coming from an anonymous donor.