2014, nearing year’s end

Considering it’s the first week of December, I’m not likely to finish many (if any) more books in 2014. Worse, I’ve been abysmal at tracking books I have read throughout the year, making me a damned boring blogger. As I recall, I vowed either at the end of 2013 or beginning of 2014 I would change my ways, magically becoming the most dedicated keeper of book records ever to have drawn breath. I would read all the books! Write about all the books! Shock horror, it didn’t happen. My Ulysses read similarly curled up and died, its dried up husk tumbling past the reach of suburbia, last sighted somewhere in the plains states. With it went most of my hopes and dreams, but don’t worry your pretty little head about that. It isn’t unusual. Not with me. Only when I express optimism should you be concerned, if strangers can be moved to care in these days of shortened attention spans and increasingly insular existence. Even I’ve stopped caring what I was just now blathering about.

I’ve finished a few books I haven’t had time to write about here, most of which didn’t exactly blow me away with their genius. I can also legitimately lay blame for my absence on an extended period of ennui in which I’ve wanted to do nothing but sleep. In fact, if I lay my head down now I’d be out before you could count to ten, waking only when prodded with a sharp stick, coaxed by the strong smell of coffee which I can’t reach without rolling out of bed.

What’s to blame? What’s always to blame: everyone and everything save myself. Part of that’s due to the inevitable – arguably excessive – time taken up by the slings and arrows of outrageous daily life, annoying in its repetition. Another consists of various health issues which have found it necessary to strike at the same time. One has proven not to be serious, though it will involve very minor surgery carried out in the doctor’s office. The other has required an ongoing series of tests, and though I ought to be optimistic of course I am not. I’m like a man with a minor virus; no amount of encouragement will convince me I should not be thinking end of life thoughts, mulling the distribution of my possessions.

Again, don’t mind me. Fatalism is de rigueur. It followeth wheresoe’er I go.

It is my fervent wish I’ll manage to assemble a Best Reads of 2014 list, not troubling myself with what I’ve forgotten I’ve read, because who’d even know the difference, anyway? There were some shining lights, though damned if I can recall a one right now. For as long as I can stay awake I’ll investigate what I’ve read and loved in 2014. If you’ve heard nothing by Christmas, you have permission to elbow me sharply in the ribs.

No promises, loves.  Good intentions but no promises. Expect little, be surprised when things go smoothly. This is how you avoid disappointment, or at least side-step the worst of it.

Who am I, what do I want to do with my life, and why does anything matter?

Good signs. All these downer questions are very good signs, indeed.

 

 

 

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

  • luckyus

  • Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; First Edition edition (July 29, 2014)

 

“These were my people: the abandoned, the unloved, the phenomenally unlucky.”

– Lucky Us

 

Dysfunctional families provide excellent material for fiction, as illustrated by the plethora of enjoyable books written on this theme. It allows an author endless possibilities when he or she has no worries about keeping up the traditional conventions of “normal” families (then again, what constitutes normal, it could be argued). Recent examples include: The Family Fang (my interview with author Kevin Wilson is here), The Goldfinch and Swamplandia! (my review here), among many others. All three I’ve cited I have read and loved. They are quirky, darkly comic stories mixed with feelings of despair, often hopelessness, ultimately redeemed in unexpected ways, a relief after having ridden along through the many ups and downs of characters you’ve come to love, partly for their endearing oddities..

Amy Bloom’s Lucky Us is no exception. It takes off quickly, hitting the reader between the eyes early on when main character Eva finds out for the first time her father has always had another family, and that his wife has died. Following a short visit, she’s abandoned on his front porch by her mother. Standing with her suitcase, she watches her mother drive away with another man, while inside her father and step-sister Iris mourn the loss of her father’s legal wife. Poor Eva had no idea what was coming, and no option but to adjust to the tumult of what is her new life. Her mother is gone, and even at the young age of ten she knows full well she isn’t coming back. Mature for her age, she picked up signals from the fact she only saw her father on weekends. Still, the full truth never occurred to her; she had too little life experience to realize it was possible.

Fortunately for Eva, Iris turns out to be a mostly tolerant sister, though not always thrilled having Eva around – normal for a prima donna teenager who’s just learned her father, whom she’d adored, had a child with another woman. Eva’s father, somewhat a scam artist who affects a British accent, is kind to her, loving and supportive, though far from a saint. In the course of the book, the three will develop a very close bond, an unconventional family fiercely loyal to one another despite some extreme twists of fate, as well as questionable life choices, mostly made by Iris and her father.

An ambitious beauty, Iris learns early on to both her uncanny talent for nearly everything, as well as her willfulness, to enter contests: everything from writing essays to performing short acting skits. Once she discovers her father has pilfered all the cash she’s won through her own hard work, she packs up her little sister and moves to Hollywood, figuring the presence of a young girl will help her chances of garnering pity from strangers – which it does. She has no clear plan and no prospects, save strong confidence in herself resulting from the ease with which she’s skated through life on her looks, intelligence and street smarts.

Hollywood, though at first very good to her, isn’t kind for long. Once she’s photographed kissing another woman she’s shunned by a WWII era Hollywood intolerant of lascivious behavior. Serendipitously, kind strangers have a way of popping up to help and advise the girls, and their father responds to their call for help, coming to their rescue. The girls wind up in New York, taking their father and a burned-out, homosexual Hollywood makeup artist along with them . Each winds up bringing a range of talents to the table, embellished by the manipulative skills of Iris and Eva’s father. For once, his history as a scammer and genuinely intelligent former teacher serves them well.

“My father quoted everyone, from Shakespeare to Emerson, on the subject of destiny, and then he’d point out that except for the Greeks, everyone agreed: The stars do fuck-all for us; you must make your own way.”

-Lucky Us

As events unfold, fate and their determination ensure their survival. Yet more strangers take them under their wing, some becoming so close a part of the family they’re sucked into their vortex of oddity. For a while, events conspire in their favor until tragedy touches this odd and mismatched family. At this point, things take a much darker turn, breaking the extended family apart. Now it’s Eva who steps up to become the stronger sister, the one left to pick up the pieces of Iris’s shattered life, as well as those she took down with her. When it becomes necessary, Eva takes an unconventional job as a Tarot card reader in order to earn extra money. Despite feeling like a fraud, she’s able to justify it through the relief she’s bringing, the always hopeful readings giving her clients cause to put tragedy behind them and move on with their lives. A temporary career choice, the ever-resourceful Eva will go on to greater things, hardly a surprise.

Underlying the story are themes of familial love amongst a very motley and unlikely group of individuals, as well as instances of unconventional romance, running the gamut from heterosexual to homosexual to adultery. Bloom uses all these elements to highlight the strengths of the individual, the survival mechanism that kicks in when life deals unfair blows, and the determination to make the best of difficult, unforeseen situations, all the while trying like hell to keep these people together. The characters themselves are flawed but loveable, fully developed and sympathetic. There really is no antagonist save life itself and its unpredictable nature. A shorter novel, at 240 pages, it flies by all too quickly. There’s so much story, many more ups and downs to come. What I’ve shared barely scratches the surface of this delightfully layered novel, jam-packed with satisfyingly odd characters.

I’ve never read Bloom’s other works but having read Lucky Us I’m eager to. Her other books include: Come to Me, a National Book Award finalist; A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Love Invents Us; Away and Where the God of Love Hangs Out. She’s had pieces published in an ungodly number of literary and other journals, including The Atlantic Monthly, winning a National Magazine Award. She teaches writing at Wesleyan University.

 

this week on the interwebs

 

Stuff I found this week:

 

 

 

 

beautifuldoor

 

 

 

 

Chicago: reading the midwestern metropolis of American literature

http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/aug/19/chicago-reading-american-literature-city-naturalism-modernism

 

beautifuldoor2

 

 

 

 

beautifuldoor3

 

 

 

 

 

Short Story: A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor

 

I’ve sorely neglected short stories in my reading. I tend to prefer novels and works of nonfiction, reason being short stories end before I have a chance to get into them. Or, worse, they end after I’m fully invested, then I feel let down the tale didn’t last longer. I prefer the luxury of characters revealed more slowly. That’s pretty much the same thing I hear from others who aren’t fond of the genre, who rate it low on their reading scale. Still, that’s no excuse. I should have better knowledge about the best of the classic short stories.

I’m beginning my midlife classic story study with a story I’ve somehow managed to miss: Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” I’ve read her Wise Blood, and recall it being masterful, though I admit I don’t remember too much about it (a factor of age, not a statement as to her skill). Another point in her favor, she’s a southern writer. Being both native southern and a lover of the literature of that region, this works out quite well.

Indeed.

[Material below contains some spoilers.]

I’ve read the story – two days ago – and haven’t stopped thinking about it since, mulling over what exactly makes it so grotesque. That’s how powerfully disturbing it is, how chilling. I’m still coming to terms with the idea a woman with such a sweet face and unassuming nature could have come up with an unflinchingly brutal piece of writing, how she took a humorous slice of family life story and turned it around into one of the most violent short pieces I’ve read.

Above is an audio file of the author herself reading the story, and the etext is here, so you can follow along as she reads. Listening to the sweet, cultured voice of Flannery O’Connor adds much character to the experience; I’m glad I stumbled onto the recording. Getting her intonation, the comic as well as the tragic, opened up worlds of meaning I may not have picked up myself. She sounds like one of my aunts – Mississippi born and raised on the more cultured maternal side of my family – so much it’s a bit unnerving. I recall glasses of homemade sweet tea (it has to be brewed, friends, not instant), my legs in shorts sticking to the vinyl chairs around the vintage 1950s era chrome wrapped blue speckled kitchen table while my aunts cooked, listening to them talk and laugh like young girls. Window unit air conditioners blasted, freezing the humid air nearly to ice, a moment of luxurious refreshment before I’d be sent back outside to play with cousins who never quite accepted me as their northern-raised, faux-southern relative. Outside was oppressive humidity, red and dusty earth, feathery mimosa trees wiggling their fingers. If they – the boys, more so – were lucky, a water moccasin snake to kill and watch in wonder as it continued to wriggle long after its head had been separated from its body – a not uncommon enough experience for my comfort.

Flannery O’Connors voice transports me places long past.

The fact it’s read before a live audience is revealing in its own way. What begins as natural laughter at O’Connor’s easy, funny style turns nervous and uncomfortable as they come to terms with the complete shift in mood, tone unchanged. Oddly, interspersed laughter continues, even once the story abruptly turns brutal. Why is that? Some couldn’t quite make the transition, couldn’t emotionally handle the unexpected twist. They didn’t know what to make of it, attempting to cover their discomfiture via ingrained but inappropriate response. Their behavior was nervous.

In the story, a family is heading out on a Florida vacation: a mother and father, their baby, two older children and their grandmother. The children fight and speak disrespectfully to their grandmother, setting up slapstick humor as the two hit at each other over her head. The elderly woman, their father’s mother, lectures them on behavior, how in her day children were respectful. Of course, they couldn’t care less. The car trip continues, until their grandmother begins telling a story, in hopes her grandchildren will calm down and shut up.

Earlier, at breakfast, the grandmother voices her disapproval the trip will even be undertaken, having heard the story a convict called “The Misfit” has escaped from a local penitentiary. He’s also headed to Florida, but what are the odds a violent criminal would cross the path of an all-American family on an innocent, short vacation? The older woman is dismissed, paid no attention.

The title of the story comes from a later scene, when they stop for dinner at a barbecue restaurant. Owner Red Sam takes a break from working on his car, sitting by them as they wait for their food:

 

You can’t win,” and he wiped is sweating red face off with a gray handkerchief. “These days you don’t know who to trust,” he said. “Ain’t that the truth?”

“People are certainly not nice like they used to be,” said the grandmother.

“A good man is hard to find,” Red Sammy said. “Everything is getting terrible…”

 

It’s difficult telling more without risk of spoiling. At approximately 12 pages, there isn’t much room to work with, not much leeway for talking about what comes after. You’ll already have guessed something terrible befalls the family, but how and why will come as an utter shock, it’s so strange. It revolves around the grandmother, when she makes a silly, ultimately fatal mistake. She inadvertently brings about their doom.

So, what is it that makes “A Good Man is Hard to Find” so lauded? The story of a family meeting a grim fate on a short and innocent vacation doesn’t sound as if it would necessarily become an enduring, often-taught piece of literature. It’s not so funny it’s side-splitting, like Twain, and the horror happens mostly off-stage. What’s its merit? It’s an ironic piece in that the character most insistent modern times are horrible, yet still wanting to find the potential good in people, is the very person who causes the horror to unfold. If the grandmother had stayed behind, as she’d originally wanted to do, the trip would likely have been unremarkable. The young family would have returned on Sunday, all right with the world.

It goes further than that, though. Ultimately, her worst fears are realized. The innate evil in man causes her to lose everything, despite her desperate but impotent desire to make up for what she’d done, going so far as to react as inappropriately as Flannery O’Connor’s nervous audience. Even that would earn what my former Engish professor Sister Mary Ely’s comment “So what?”

So a lot, later in the story:

 

Look here now,” Bailey began suddenly. “we’re in a predicament! We’re in …”

The grandmother shrieked. She scrambled to her feet and stood staring. “You’re The Misfit!” she said. “I recognized you at once!”

“Yes’m,” the man said, smiling slightly as if he were pleased in spite of himself to be known, “but it would have been better for all of you, lady, if you hadn’t of reckernized me.”

Bailey turned his head sharply and said something to his mother that shocked even the children. The old lady began to cry and The Misfit reddened.

“Lady,” he said, “don’t you get upset. Sometimes a man says things he don’t mean. I don’t reckon he meant to talk to you thataway.”

“You wouldn’t shoot a lady, would  you?” the grandmother said and removed a clean handkerchief from her cuff and began to slap at her eyes with it.

The Misfit pointed the toe of his shoe into the ground and made a little hole and then covered it up again. “I would hate to have to,” he said.

 

A man gone so far anti-social to have murdered, southern niceties ingrained in him so deeply he finds using profanity in front of a woman more objectionable than pointing a gun at her. And the grandmother, responsible for all the awfulness, realizing with a jolt exactly what her misstep will bring about.

The story stands up to much more analysis; I’m just not inclined to go too much further into it. It is filled with ambiguities, with social norms turned grotesque. It opens the fakery, the false front most of us put up, illustrating how ridiculous we ultimately are. It does so painfully, using a common image turned terrifying, to jerk us out of lulling complacency. Flannery O’Connor’s realistic style comes too close to plausibility for our comfort, poking sensitivities with a white-hot knife.

That’s why it’s great, Sister Mary Ely. I’ll take that A now.

TED Talks: Billy Collins, Two poems on what dogs think (probably)

I don’t know a lot about poetry, but I do know I love Billy Collins, former two-time Poet Laureate of the United States.

He was my first high-profile author interview; somehow I talked my way into a phone interview for the first incarnation of this blog. Wires were crossed, somehow. No doubt he wouldn’t have given me the interview had he really understood the venue. Still, he very graciously answered my questions, and I’ve loved him ever since.

I saw him live in Woodstock, IL a few years ago, when he came for a reading. After, sitting in a little restaurant on the square, I saw him walk across the park alone. I thought about running up to him, telling him how much I appreciated what he’d done. To this day, I regret I let that moment pass. He wouldn’t have remembered me, I mean, come on. Still, I ignored the impulse that rose in my stomach, pushing it back down with my Greek salad. Yes, I remember what I was eating.

A moment missed. Ah, well. May as well not worry, since I can’t have it back.

I have enough regret to carry around, already. Don’t we all?

Writers: On routine

A Short Compilation on How Writers Write

Geoff Dyer

I always have a nap sometime between two and five in the afternoon. Beyond that, we’d have to talk about each book in turn and what stage I was at in a particular book. Which means, I suppose, that the answer is no. I find it incredibly difficult to settle and I have very limited powers—if we can dignify it with that word—of concentration, so at first I’m up and out of my chair every few minutes. Later on I can stay at the desk for longer periods until eventually I don’t even have to force myself to stay there. The general process is just to splurge stuff out, without being particularly worried about the spelling or anything. Just splurging to make sure there’s something there.

Martin Amis

You try to think about where you are going, not where you came from, though what sometimes happens is that you get stuck, and it’s really not what you’re about to do that’s stumping you, it’s something you’ve already done that isn’t right. You have to go back and fix that. My father described a process in which, as it were, he had to take himself gently but firmly by the hand and say, Now all right, calm down. What is it that’s worrying you? The dialogue will go: Well, it’s the first page, actually. What is it about the first page? He might say, The first sentence. And he realized that it was only a little thing that was holding him up. Actually, my father, I think, sat down and wrote what he considered to be the final version straightaway, because he said there’s no point in putting down a sentence if you’re not going to stand by it.

Italo Calvino

In theory I would like to work every day. But in the morning I invent every possible excuse not to work: I have to go out, make some purchases, buy the newspaper. As a rule, I manage to waste the morning, so I end up sitting down to write in the afternoon. I’m a daytime writer, but since I waste the morning I’ve become an afternoon writer. I could write at night, but when I do, I don’t sleep. So I try to avoid that.

Simone de Beauvoir

I’m always in a hurry to get going, though in general I dislike starting the day. I first have tea and then, at about ten o’clock, I get under way and work until one. Then I see my friends and after that, at five o’clock, I go back to work and continue until nine. I have no difficulty in picking up the thread in the afternoon. When you leave, I’ll read the paper or perhaps go shopping. Most often it’s a pleasure to work.

Robert Frost

Well, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. I don’t know what that would be like, myself. When I get going on something, I don’t want to just—you know . . . Very first one I wrote I was walking home from school and I began to make it—a March day—and I was making it all afternoon and making it so I was late at my grandmother’s for dinner. I finished it, but it burned right up, just burned right up, you know. And what started that? What burned it? So many talk, I wonder how falsely, about what it costs them, what agony it is to write. I’ve often been quoted: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” But another distinction I made is: however sad, no grievance, grief without grievance. How could I, how could anyone have a good time with what cost me too much agony, how could they? What do I want to communicate but what a hell of a good time I had writing it?

lineplain

debeauvoir

 Simone de Beauvoir, Emma Goldman, and Rosa Luxemburg smoking pipes, 1930s.

photo

IMG_7563-2

magnolia cemetery, charleston, s.c.

Few things make me more irate than seeing the confederate flag placed on a grave as a supposed gesture of honor. There is no honor for traitors.

photo

cemeterymary

magnolia cemetery, charleston, s.c.

I don’t want to hear about the weird lighting affect in this photo, how the sunspot and lighter area on the statue is weird or spooky or what-not. I was shooting against the light; I was bound to get a lens flare.

I found the level of detail in this statue amazing. They don’t make monuments like this one anymore.