Monday, June 28, 2010

a snippet

They say you can jinx a poem
if you talk about it before it is done.
If you let it out too early, they warn,
your poem will fly away,
and this time they are absolutely right.

from "Madmen" by Billy Collins

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Finishing Mr. Peanut

Finally finished Adam's novel this afternoon after a torturous half-week of reading it. It's so dark and disturbing and downright brilliant in places that I had to set it down, had to pick it back up.

I'm linking to Scott Turow's review because I don't want to ruminate on or even attempt to condense the plot details here. The reader experiences three portraits of marriage, each suffering from a desperation and a failure to connect, a maddening blindness (toward self and spouse), and a resulting violence that bubbles up to the surface. I'm not sure that sentence is quite parallel. Oh well.

Hoping Adam won't mind if I quote him directly here from our earlier conversation:

"In large part, this book is a critique of our ever more virtual/distracted society and how these distractions--be they sexual, avataristic, or otherwise--lead us away from the most immediate, important things before us (our spouses and children, unborn or in their earliest adolescence). David is writing a novel that is an attempt to re-grasp what he wasn't present to (Alice), while also exploring aspects of his guilt via avatars (Hastroll/Sheppard). But avatars fall short. They are a prophylactic on life.

And yet at the same time his art is very much alive and possibly a cautionary tale that is a wake-up call to the reader."

My question upon finishing the novel is whether or not art is ultimately portrayed as redemptive or destructive. In short, Mr. Peanut requires reading and rereading. The layers of fantasy, fiction, and reality blur throughout. Makes me think about the stories we tell ourselves and the narratives we construct in the absence of - really the impossibility of - fully knowing ourselves or another person. In one of my favorite passages, the main character, David Pepin (David/Pepin - two versions of the same character), writes in his own novel:

"There are two of us, of course, David and Pepin, interlocked and separate and one and the same. I'm writing my better self and he's writing his worse and vice versa and so until the end. A good reader - a good detective - knows this by now. If you don't, look in the mirror. That's you and not you, after all, because the person in your mind isn't the person in the world. And if you don't know this already, you will."

I don't think Adam would mind me saying that it is also quite the sexy novel, too. Good old-fashioned graphic. And as a few of us discovered after his book-reading, it's amazing what you can see on the cover after getting into two bottles of wine and flipping it upside down. It has its own Escher-like qualities, as does the novel itself.

Friday, June 25, 2010

"Answers" by Mary Oliver

If I envy anyone it must be
My grandmother in a long ago
Green summer, who hurried
Between kitchen and orchard on small
Uneducated feet, and took easily
All shining fruits into her eager hands.

That summer I hurried too, wakened
To books and music and circling philosophies.
I sat in the kitchen sorting through volumes of answers
That could not solve the mystery of the trees.

My grandmother stood among her kettles and ladles.
Smiling, in faulty grammar,
She praised my fortune and urged my lofty career:
So to please her I studied - but I will remember always
How she poured confusion out, how she cooled and labeled
All the wild sauces of the brimming year.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

"The Sink" by Catherine Bowman

She loves to talk on the phone
while washing the dinner dishes,
catching up long distance or
dealing with issues closer to home,
the reconnoitring with the long lost
or a recent so-and-so. She finds it
therapeutic, washing down
the aftermath. And that feeling
she gets in her stomach with a loved one’s
prolonged silence. And under the sink
in the dark among the L-pipes, the confederate
socket wrenches, lost twine, wire lei,
sink funk, steel-wool lemnisci, leitmotifs
of oily sacraments, a broken compass forever
pointing southeast by east, mold codices,
ring-tailed dust motes from days well served,
a fish-shaped flyswatter with blue horns,
fermented lemures, fiery spectres,
embottled spirit vapors swirling in the crude
next to the Soft Scrub, the vinegared
and leistered sealed in tins, delicious with saltines,
gleaned spikelets, used-up votives. . . .
In the back in the corner forgotten
an old coffee can of bacon fat
from a month of sinful Sundays,
a luna moth embossed, rising—a morning star.

The New Yorker, June 24, 2010

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Mr. Peanut

So incredibly proud of and happy for my friend Adam Ross, whose novel, Mr. Peanut, hit bookshelves yesterday. At least half of Nashville is reading it right now, and that includes me, so I won't write at length about it yet. Serious porch time ahead. I will also note that it isn't just Nashville reading: he's getting rave reviews from just about everyone. The New York Times called it "dark, dazzling" this week, and Scott Turow is reviewing for this Sunday's book section. In my opinion, worth the hard back price for the cover alone...although the opening lines are damn good, too:

"When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn't kill her himself. He dreamed convenient acts of God..."

I guess I should note here that the novel is about a man named David Pepin who may or may not have killed his wife. Not surprisingly and yet fabulously wonderful all the same, Stephen King is a big fan of Mr. Peanut, too.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

20 under 40

I curled up with the summer fiction issue of The New Yorker last night (June 14 & 21), and the short stories took my breath away. Friends will attest to the fact that I never read the short stories, so I'm not sure which stars were aligning last night. At any rate, this concept of choosing 20 of the best fiction writers under 40 clearly appealed to me. As someone in the Times pointed out today, it's unclear what being a great writer under 40 years old means for the rest of one's career. No way to know. Best to enjoy these words now...I'm excepting from a few of my favorites below.

"Here We Aren't, So Quickly" by Jonathan Safran Froer (loving the cadence of this one)

...I changed and changed and with more time I will change more. I'm not disappointed, just quiet. Not unthinking, just reckless. Not willfully unclear, just trying to say it as it wasn't. The more I remember, the more distant I feel. We reach the middle so quickly. After everything it's like nothing. I have always never been here. What a shame it wasn't easy. What a waste of what? What a joke. But come. No explaining or mending. Be beside me somewhere: on the split stools of this bar, by the edge of this cliff, in the seats of this borrowed car, at the prow of this ship, on the all-forgiving cushions of this threadbare sofa in this one-story copper-crying fixer-upper whose windows we once squinted through for hours before coming to our senses: "What would we even do with such a house?"

"The Entire Northern Side Was Covered With Fire" by Rivka Galchen

People say no one reads anymore, but I find that's not the case. Prisoners read. I guess they're not given much access to computers. A felicitous injustice for me. The nicest reader letters I've received - also the only reader letters I've received - have come from prisoners. Maybe we're all prisoners? In our lives, our habits, our relationships? That's not nice, my saying that. Maybe it's even evil, to co-opt the misery of others...

"The Pilot" by Joshua Ferris (painfully good...)

Kate's invitation had come by email. She was considerate, or she was canny, not to include the addresses of the other invitees. She'd sent the message to her husband and bcc'ed everyone else....

He'd R.S.V.P.'d, but not immediately. Two days after the message came in. Two days plus maybe an hour. And said something like: Just can't wait. Heading to tax-friendly Winston-Salem in a few days to shoot this godawful underarm commercial. Remember that particular station of the cross? Maybe not, probably scrubbed it from memory. But, hell, work's work. That pilot I told you about is coming along, I think. Gleekman's enthusiastic, or at least Pleble claims enthusiasm on his behalf. But the sad reality is always reality television. It's why I so admire "Death." It's a sick little fuck-you every week to the swapped wives and tarantula eaters. Congratulations, by the way. Three seasons! God damn if that's not impressive in this climate. But the show...well, do you ever tire of hearing how good it is? And I thought life was over after "The Wire." Listen, no need to reply to this longwinded e-mail. You're wrapping! But can't wait to see you at the party. Consider this an R.S.V.P. No way I'd miss it. Not a chance in the world. Hooray! Cheers cheers, Lx.

He didn't expect a reply...

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

While stranded in Philly in May (not a bad place to be stranded, fyi, because I got to stay in Bruder's lovely and miniature Rittenhouse Square apartment), Anne strongly suggested that I pick up a graphic novel that she had just taught in her women's memoir course at Bryn Mawr. This suggestion was met with an automatic "No."

A) I don't "do" graphic novels.
B) Enough said.

I thought this would be the end of the conversation for sure. Instead, we found ourselves idly searching for it in her neighborhood bookstore, and after reading one page I could not put it down. Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel, is the illustrated story of Bechdel's fraught relationship with her father, a high school English teacher and closeted homosexual who spends most of his waking hours obsessing about the decor of his rambling Gothic Revival home. As Bechdel describes him:

"My father could spin garbage...into gold. He could transfigure a room with the smallest offhand flourish. He could conjure an entire, finished period interior from a paint chip. He was an alchemist of appearance, a savant of surface, a Daedalus of decor..."

What you are missing from this description though are the wonderful illustrations and asides that make a graphic novel so rich and layered. And witty! The other tennis coach grabbed it out of my bag on a long bus ride to Memphis, and she was giggling the whole way. Every now and then she would shout, "Hey Lemon! What does solipsistic mean? What does simulacrum mean?" Bechdel's vocabulary absolutely rocks this book. After all, there are only so many words which one can fit in the margins or bubbles of an illustrated page, and so Bechdel has chosen them with razor sharp precision.

Important to note that this is also the story of Bechdel's own coming to terms with her sexual orientation. It is her "Odyssey," (and yes, literary references do crop up on every other page), yet she sees it as tangential to her understanding of her father. From the opening page she describes their relationship in terms of Icarus and Daedalus and questions who is actually father to whom: "In our particular reenactment of this mythic relationship, it was not me but my father who was to plummet from the sky..."

Poignant, humorous, and heartbreaking - sometimes all of these on the same page - it is one of my favorite reads this year. To end on a tantalizing note, it is also quite "graphic." Might want to read this one away from the kids' end of the pool this summer...

Sunday, June 6, 2010


Wells Tower, when asked to describe in a New York Times article a random literary encounter from a summer vacation:

“The Bridges of Madison County,” by Robert James Waller, found in a beach house in Brooklin, Me. Strenuously unrecommended as a novel, but if you strike every third verb and noun it converts into a superb volume of Mad Libs with which to pass idle hours by the sea. — Wells Tower

Friday, June 4, 2010

"KOI" by Katie Ford

After all the days and nights we've spent
with Starry Messenger, with Dante,
with Plato, his temperance
painted as a woman who pours
water into a bowl but does not spill,
after particle theory and the geologic time of this quartz
gilded beneath the roaming gone,
composites of limestone calculated down to the animal
that laid upon it and quietly died,

after hearing how camels carted away the broken
Colossus of Rhodes, showing us how to carry
and build back our destroyed selves,

hearing there was once a hand
that first learned to turn
an infant right in the womb,

that there was, inside Michelangelo, an Isaiah to carve out
the David, the idea, the one buried
in us who can slay the enormities,

after all visions and prophecies that made the heart large,
once and again, true or untrue,

after learning to shave the gleaming steel down—
the weapon, the bomb we make,
and the watercolor made after
of the dropped-upon crowd, thin strokes
over a pale wash—
after all this, still
one of us can’t know another.

Once under an iron sky I listened
to a small assemblage of voices.
Two by two broke off into the field
to strip down the unbroken flock of starling dark
between them. The ceremony of the closing in,
the hope each to each might not stay tourists
before the separate, chiseled ruin of the other:

The unspeakable, illegible one before us—

this is what the linguists call the dead, isn't it?

But how are you, we say,
meaning how have you been made,
what is wrong, what
happened, we ask, how long have you been waiting,
are you on my side, can you promise to stay,
will you keep
the etchings clear on my stone
and come visit me, your never-known,

will you lean over my ghost
how we leaned over the green pools of the Japanese garden,
a cluster of lanterns blowing out above us
wisp by wisp, a school of koi pausing at the surface,
letting us look all the way in
until we saw each eye
was like a net heaped on shore.

Just like our eyes, weren’t they? all accidents, wastes,
all saving needs filled and unfilled, the cracked shells,
the kelp fronds torn from their buoys, all caught here,
inside us—
the seven we loved, the six we lost—
seaglass the living
and the human, alone.