Friday, December 10, 2010

Weird Pennsylvania: Law Enforcement We Cannot Take Seriously

Some places have real news stories--I'm thinking, of course, of the riots storming the UK right now over the hike in tuition, which led to Prince Charles and Camilla's car being attacked. But Pennsylvania? Pennsylvania law enforcement cannot distinguish fact from fiction.

I have a number of personal encounters with the...flakes of local law enforcement in Pennsylvania, which I won't elaborate on here. But needless to say, I feel enthralled by any story that picks up on these themes.

About a week ago, a fire ignited in the George Washington Hotel in Washington, Penna. (a city near Pittsburgh). Emergency response teams arrived at the scene to address the fire, and in so doing discovered a blood- and gore-soaked room. Police Chief J. R. Blyth, according to The Daily Mail article linked to above, described the room as "the most grisly murder scene in his 35 years of law enforcement."

Until they discovered that it was actually a movie set from two years ago for a slasher flick starring the late 1980s heartthrob Corey Haim.

There are some things (hikes in tuition rates, drastic cuts in education funding) that are well worth spazzing about. But what led the police to assume that this was, in fact, a murder scene? Didn't they enquire into when the room had last been registered to an occupant? They spent eight hours before realizing that the blood splattered about the room was fake.

Here, we have an instance where reality becomes the fiction, and fiction, the reality. The first rule of detection--as with literary criticism--is to question your surroundings and what you see. We cannot jump to the obvious conclusions; blood does not always equal murder, just as our discoveries in the first pages of a text may prove false by the time we finish reading a book.

The entire episode is utterly surreal, but I think it's an instructive moment. Appearances can be deceiving. And...apparently, somebody is stilling preserving a shrine to the latter day work of Corey Haim.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Wednesday Poetry: "ohio," by m loncar

First of all, what's with poets deciding that they're too cool for capitalization? Dear poets--you are not all e.e. cummings. And sure, it looks cool when he did it, but what's your reason?

I digress. Today's "Wednesday Poetry" offering comes from the collection 66 galaxie by m loncar, one of those lower-cased poets, and he is a graduate of Michigan's MFA program. The "narrative" of the book, if you will, is a trip across the country, and this poem--"ohio"--exemplifies what we remember from most long trips. It is not the landscapes that we remember when in transit, or necessarily the conversations, but those things that frustrate, harry, or harrow us. These are the things that make the journey drag or aggravate us to drive at 90 mph, just to get it over. These experiences include, but are certainly not limited to, spilling coffee on your lap. loncar's Ohio is a total spill, a place where the coffee is bad, a place where good things slip out of your hand and dissipate on your lap. Some might say it sounds freakishly like the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Some might say that.

(And next to DFW's "Great Ohio Desert," complete with black sand, in The Broom of the System, I find this to be a fair rendering of that state.)


besides spilling the better half, as well as the steamier half,
of mcdonald's best try at a cup of coffee on my crotch,
the ride out of ohio passed without incident

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Offspring of Bruce Campbell and Kill Bill, or, A Weekend of Bad Japanese Movies

So...I'm incredibly glad that head colds and sore throats cannot be spread over the Internet. (As Felicia Day sings in the song "Avatar" from her hit webseries The Guild, "Here in cyberspace there's no disease!") Read as: You're all safe reading this, and you won't get my weird hybrid cold/ear infection thing. But between reading some books and some napping, I turned on my Wii, navigated to the Netflix channel, and streamed a few movies--two Japanese flicks that came up under the "Foreign" category. My cat, Miss Kaylee, and I settled down for an evening of film watching.

In today's session of "Meowsterpiece Theatre," Miss Kaylee and I happily present two terribly cheesy Japanese films highly deserving of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment: constant interruption with snide remarks.

First of all, there's Man, Woman, and the Wall. The general premise is that this scruffy sleaze-bag of a guy moves into an apartment next to a strikingly beautiful woman. He listens through the wall to the different aspects of her life and eventually discovers that her boyfriend has been bugging her apartment and leading a double life: caring boyfriend but creepy stalker. Then scruffy guy who listens through the wall decides he needs to upset the boyfriend's reign of terror. This movie should perhaps be retitled "Why Mark Zuckerberg invented Stalkerbook." Because, believe it or not, Stalkerbook is far less creepy than this particularly Japanese flick (the cinematography of which appears to have been done on a rickety camera track).

Overall PitM rating: 1.5/5.

But wait--there's more! I also watched The Machine Girl, a paragon of cinematic cheesiness. Think of The Machine Girl as Kill Bill meets "The Complete Works of Bruce Campbell." Particularly Army of Darkness Bruce Campbell. There are tons of slow-mo battle sequences, replete with severed limbs that cartoonishly spray gore the consistency of cranberry juice. High school girl Ami Hyuga (that's actually Hyuga Ami, if you're putting surname and given name in the Japanese order) seeks to avenge her brother's death at the hands of a yakuza's heir. In her first attempt at storming the yakuza's headquarters, Ami loses an arm in a series of prolonged tortures; she manages to escape and stumbles into a few friendly mechanics, who build her a machine gun arm. Insert more ridiculous and gory battle sequences. Oh, and the villain kid's mother? She has a drill bra. A steel bar with giant drills for cups. Yes, it is that terrible.

Overall PitM rating: 2/5.

Save yourselves the time: Avoid these films unless you have somebody to help you make fun of them.

Friday, December 3, 2010

On (and off) the Road with Jack Kerouac

The last time I was in the Strand Bookstore, I picked up a copy of Kerouac's The Dharma Bums; I figured that, for eight bucks, I really had nothing to lose.

Until I learned a rather painful lesson: When it comes to Kerouac, it doesn't get better than On the Road.

This is not the first time I met with such displeasure when Kerouac's name was attached to a book. I felt it, too, with Grove/Atlantic's release of a lost novel co-authored by Kerouac and William Burroughs--And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks.

The Dharma Bums does not come as the first time that I ran into some...frustrations with the unrefined nature of Kerouac's work. It's an inevitable hallmark of his work, evinced in his famous methodology piece "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose," in which he writes
LAG IN PROCEDURE No pause to think of proper word but the infantile pileup of scatalogical buildup words till satisfaction is gained, which will turn out to be a great appending rhythm to a thought and be in accordance with Great Law of timing.
TIMING Nothing is muddy that runs in time and to laws of time--Shakespearian stress of dramatic need to speak now in own unalterable way or forever hold tongue--no revisions (except obvious rational mistakes, such as names or calculated insertions in act of not writing but inserting).
The concept--which is wincingly at work in The Dharma Bums--is the transformation of the page from a crafted literary artifact into a textual vomitorium. For this reader, at least, there is little pleasure in the discovery of Ray Smith's arduous and repetitive run-on sentences, his arduous and repetitive recounting of prolonged conversations on Buddhist theology in the novel's first seventy pages. Sentences such as the following are commonplace in The Dharma Bums:
I felt it was Morley who had done the influencing--he had the same snide, sarcastic, extremely witty, well-formulated speech, with thousands of images, like, when Japhy and I walked in and there was a gathering of Morley's friends in there (a strange outlandish group including one Chinese and one German from Germany and several other students of some kind) Morley said "I'm bringing my air mattress, you guys can sleep on that hard cold ground if you want but I'm going to have pneumatic air besides I went and spend sixteen dollars on it in the wilderness of Oakland Army Navy stores and drove around all day wondering if with rollerskates or suction cups you can technically call yourself a vehicle" or some such to-me-incomprehensible (to everybody else) secret-meaning joke of his own, to which nobody listened much anyway, he kept talking and talking as though to himself but I liked him right away. (29)
Holy sentence, Batman. And this is coming from an avid believer in the possibilities of the sentence pushed to its extremes, but the different here is the author's sense of control. Even the Penelope episode of Ulysses, which is Molly Bloom's unpunctuated soliloquy, demonstrates a sense of authorial control, of a delicate and deft handling of words. Following his desire for spontaneous prose, though, Kerouac lets The Dharma Bums' narrator, Ray Smith, throw all the lyricism of On the Road with a ditch. Compare, for instance, the above garbled redundancy (a German from Germany? Oy....) to a moment at the beginning of Sal Paradise's venture in On the Road:
But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people who for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!" (5-6)
Both excerpts are long sentences, yes, but the example from On the Road--which is the earlier of the two novels--demonstrates a willingness to punctuate as well as a more careful consideration of words. Both excerpts build in the way that we might expect from such "spontaneous prose," but Sal Paradise, narrating the latter of our two quotations, has a more lyrical voice and provides us more readily with specific verbs ("shambled") and luminescent images ("fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars").

When I next feel inclined to read Kerouac, I'll bum around with Sal Paradise, who has a narrative voice that's more readable, more lyrical, and--I cannot emphasize this enough--far less frustrating.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Wednesday Poetry: "Histories," by Eavan Boland

Today's poem comes from Eavan Boland's 2007 collection Domestic Violence, and the poem itself comes from the title sequence.


That was the year the news was always bad
(statistics on the radio)
the sad
truth no less so for being constantly repeated.

That was the year my mother was outside
in the shed
in her apron with the strings tied
twice behind her back and the door left wide.

Monday, November 29, 2010

No Logo, No Game

Recently, The New York Times reported on colleges and universities going after high schools for copyright infringement; some high schools have been using logos that are too reminiscent of colleges' trademarked icons. Adam Himmelsbach reports that one such school, Glades Day School of Florida, recently had to change its Gator logo because of similarities to the University of Florida's trademark. In many instances, schools simply choose to go along with the changes; Himmelsbach cites trademark lawyer Dineen Wayslik as saying, "The problem when you’re a defendant is you can spend the money to fight it, and if you lose, you also have to spend the money to change everything."

The question, of course, is what's in a symbol. For many schools, this imitation is a sincere form of flattery, a choice based on an athletic director or school leader's alumni status. (Such is the case with the Robert Egley, a Florida alum and headmaster of the Glades Day School.)

I'm not trying to discount the copyright issue here at all; what I am questioning, however, is everything that these use of symbols mean. The relationship between schools, the sort of cultural code that we've embedded into these things. Consider that this is made worse by the fact that high schools are now trademarking their logos.

Logos are a shorthand way, a pictorial way, of conveying a message; in some ways, these are like themes or images recurring throughout literature. The shared images create a kind of common history, a shared narrative thread. But the change in logos, the cease-and-desist orders being sent by colleges and universities, threatens to unravel these relationships.

Like any good story, it's a muddy issue, rife with concerns from copyright issues to originality. (How many gator logos can possibly be created?) But it's an interesting one with some points that should be well considered.

Monday, November 8, 2010

It's Been a While, and Still Some Things Don't Ever Change

Long time, no see. America is drowning from a recent tea party (btw, totally symbolically boycotted tea on Election Day and got all of my caffeine from coffee, despite my preference for tea!), and in the world of fictional narratives, maybe nothing's different. Despite national turmoil.

Right now, I'm teaching a section of freshman comp in the Rutgers-Newark Writing Program, and we're moving into a unit on heroes. We've started with part of the introduction to Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which Campbell argues for what he calls the "monomyth": It's very Jungian, in that Campbell posits that there are archetypes that recur throughout cultures. And we've basically been dealing with the same kinds of stories. It's the context that's different, the names and faces and particular quirks of characters that are unique.

That seems to be a popular opinion in what I've been reading as of late. In A Short Story Writer's Companion, Tom Bailey argues that it's characters that make stories different and meaningful. This is not unlike Campbell's monomyth, which has been appropriated by modern tale tellers like George Lucas.

How'd I get on this tangent? The most recent update to Kate Beaton's webcomic Hark! A Vagrant! Beaton lampoons Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe in a series of strips that place Friday as the more intelligent, sophisticated of the two. The purpose behind Beaton's comic is to mock a recurring film archetype that she read about in the Bright Lights Film Journal, in which Frederick Zackel argues that we've been seeing Robinson Crusoe's master-slave/white-black dialectic played for years. And it's everywhere. Yet we've been overlooking it in to address other concerns. Zackel writes,
For instance, we all remember the brouhaha about whether the 1993 movie Rising Sun actually represented Japan-bashing. Yet none of us seemed to have noticed that the two male leads in that movie, Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes, were busy reenacting (or maybe "perpetuating" is a better word) one of the oldest fictional partnerships in our Western culture.
Englishman Connery played the part of Robinson Crusoe, while Snipes, a descendant of slaves, played his Man Friday. Not that those were their characters' names, of course. Not that either man realized what they were reenacting, either. Nor can either man be blamed for his part in perpetuating the myth.
First of all, I take offense to his referring to Sean Connery as an "Englishman," but his point is that Connery's and Snipes's characters are reenacting/perpetuating (his words) the Robinson Crusoe/Friday model. And it's not just Rising Sun; other movies, like Men in Black, have the older, wiser, patriarchal white male figure overseeing, guiding, and correcting a black counterpart (Tommy Lee Jones with Will Smith, for instance).

But seriously--Sean Connery is a Scot. Mr. Zackel is perpetuating his own stereotype--that Scots are happily English. But just as the rise of the Scottish parliament speaks towards Scotland's move toward freedom, so too should we try to craft into our fictions a move away from the Crusoe/Friday paradigm (first African American president, anybody?). Otherwise, nothing will ever change.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Wednesday Poetry: "Summer Storm in the Animal Graveyard," by Irene McKinney

Irene McKinney, a Professor Emerita at West Virginia Wesleyan College, is the author of five books of poetry. As a West Virginia native, McKinney often uses her poems to engage life in rural America, specifically in Appalachia. Her poems range in subject matter from the connections between people and the animals they raise to sexuality and womanhood.

The below poem is anthologized in Irene McKinney's collection Unthinkable: Selected Poems, 1976-2004, published by Red Hen Press. The poem first appeared in McKinney's 1976 poetry collection The Girl with the Stone in Her Lap.

"Summer Storm in the Animal Graveyard"

A shiver of violets runs over the ground,
the low branches of the Sour Russet dip and scrape.
Cows who died in labor, late apples pounding
the ground in the fall, piglets rolled on
in a wallowing grunt by the sow.

A wild rearing of the wind: it stands up and walks.
Dark scuds the sky, the quick touch of rain
over the bright level stretch of grass flattening.
A rumbling ache in the earth as
the storm breaks out, galloping.

The horse who died at the plow
fell to his knees after twenty years--
his legs must be cut off to fit him in the grave.
The limestone vein in the hill, loosened by rain,
replaced each cell and made him stone.

Flying home, hundreds of starlings killed
in the attic (their fluttering kept us awake at night)
bundled in a lumpy blanket into one large hole.
Now in the high wind, they speck the sky
like flecks of ash, twirling and rising.

Falling, the cool rain veers toward
the green line of the bitter hickories.
The sad sheep walk to death, so quiet,
like nothing was happening, and lie down.
The trees shift and settle after the storm.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Is New Literature Anything More than Repetition?

On 9 October, The New York Times published an op-ed by Maureen Dowd entitled "Lord of the Internet Rings," in which Dowd draws parallels between her experience of seeing Wagner's Ring Cycle for the first time and David Fincher's and Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network. Dowd writes:
But as I watched the opera, my mind kept flashing to the "The Social Network," another dazzling drama about quarrels over riches, social hierarchy, envy, theft and the consequences of deceit. A Sony executive called "The Social Network," the David Fincher-Aaron Sorkin movie about Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and his circle of ex-friends and partners, "the first really modern movie." Yet the strikingly similar themes in Wagner's feudal "Das Rheingold"--the Ring cycle is based on the medieval German epic poem "Das Nibelungenlied," which some experts say helped inspire J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings"--underscore how little human drama changes through the ages.
Dowd's critique, twofold in nature, initially highlights a critique that, like a ceremonial canon blast of grapeshot, discharges and is heard around the world every time Hollywood releases a remake: There's nothing new in literature or film; everything has been done already.

On its surface, this may appear true. So how can a film like The Social Network--or any other piece of literature, written or visual or auditory--possibly do anything new? Remember, for starters, that I said Dowd's criticism was twofold. If one side is that there's nothing new, its inverse--the American seal on the back of the quarter, so to speak--is that mythic archetypes are easily recycled; though the narrative structures appear similar, the form is merely a tool we have to understand our world, its advances, and how those most human of emotions can interfere even in a postindustrial, tech-heavy society.

The mythic, then, isn't simply a myth; it's a way for us to reframe what's happening around us, today. T.S. Eliot, in writing his essay "Ulysses, Order and Myth" about James Joyce's Ulysses, praised what he termed the novel's "mythic method": Joyce took the allusions to Homer's Odyssey, and in a novel he employed the mythic figures, the epic narrative arc, and illuminated the unique characters and ideologies of Dublin, Ireland, as it existed on June 16, 1904.

I don't know about genre theory to say definitively (not that anybody can say something definitively when it comes to literature, though they'll try) that there are no new forms or structures extant in film, music, and literature today. But even if there aren't, even if history seems easily categorized by these same forms and structures, there will always be new characters, new psychologies, new circumstances.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Lapsed Time, Elapsed Memories

The novella 03 by French novelist Jean-Christophe Valtat--now available in translation from Farrar, Straus and Giroux--packages the thoughts of a pretentious teenager, who studies a mentally-challenged girl every day on his way to school. In another form--the short story or the novel--this narrative might just as easily have presented us with several scenes in which the boy encounters the girl or is caught watching her.

But Valtat is not content to simply have his teenager narrate interactions with the girl. The novella becomes a study in immediate reactions, informed through past experiences. The action of watching the girl transfers us from the curbside to the boy's memories, and an accordion shudder of reflections and recollections fold, unfold, and collapse: He recalls his own observations of adult sexuality, of interpersonal relationships, of solitude, of his own intellectual development and precociousness. (And it's little surprise that his cultural references range from Joy Division lyrics to Flowers for Algernon--an attempt to show that he belongs somewhere.)

Valtat displays a hallmark of the novella form: this compression of time and memory. Though only a quick glance passes in the narrative, memories elapse and take form. But it's not only the narrator's story that expands; he wonders as to what the girl's life is like, how it has effected her parents, how their entire life's narrative can exist in this single and singular glimpse. How do they live with their daughter in an institution? The narrator ponders:
When her mother and father were suddenly left alone, their daughter entrusted to some sort of institution, what was it like between them: Did they hold back sighs of relief, secretly wishing their time to themselves could last longer, or did they feel a yearning for her half-empty presence, this slender pail of the Danaids into which they poured all their attention, including the attention they had promised each other before, and had given up a luxury? Now they were parents of this rough muddled draft of a child: Was there between them the shadow of blame or else were they, in the English phrase, thick as thieves, united against the injustice for which they could never be held responsible (but then who could)?
Of course, all good fiction explores the inner psychology of its characters. Here, though, Valtat displays something the novella does particularly deftly: We move from the narrator's reflections, which collapse into this reflection, which in turn--like some particle exploding in a nuclear reaction--generates an expansive study of the story behind the story. Who is this girl? Where does she come from? And what is the life of which she's a part?

This trademark of the novella--this dimensionally transcendental quality in which a second can linger for pages, in which a moment can open into a more expansive narrative--offers us opportunities to perform our own literary explorations.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Wednesday Poetry: "Genesis," by K.A. Hays

"Genesis" appears in K.A. Hays's collection Dear Apocalypse, released by Carnegie Mellon Press in 2009. From 2008-2010, she was the Emerging Writer Fellow at Bucknell University. As always, read! Check it out from a library or buy--the link above takes you to the B&N page.


The ocean chafed and slashed when I was four,
of course. The sand smoldered and the rocks
bladed pools that filled and drained. The hub

of all this wonder, I hunched over the coquinas--mollusks
the size of a toenail--digging and laying them out
along the bruise of sea. I made them sun-glossed, perfect.

They fought my will, shone nakedly, snaked down.
It thrilled me, their insistence--that a being with only a foot
could want and believe in someplace after here,

choosing to leave the whip of sun and churn of breakers,
headed somewhere freer, darker.
I took up my shovel. I idled away.

Monday, September 27, 2010

18 Miles of Books

A few mornings ago, I was talking on the phone with a friend and planning an initial excursion into New York City. I've been in Newark for more than a month now, and I decided that it was about time that I went into the City and loafed around for a while. My friend mentioned the Strand: "I see people in D.C. all the time who have Strand tote bags. 16 miles of books! It sounds like your sort of place."

"I thought it was 15 miles of books."

"I'm pretty sure," she said, "that it's 16 miles."

Well, we were both wrong: the Strand has been--and is still--expanding. It's a bookstore I've wanted to go to for a few years; I still can't forgive myself for missing City Lights when I was in San Fran a few years back, and the Strand bags I've seen on-campus at Susquehanna and Bucknell were walking advertisements for this bookstore. When I arrived at the Strand's location, 828 Broadway, near Union Square, I immediately noticed that the number on the Strand's awning, which announces the miles of books in a white sans serif font, offered the verdict on the collection: 18 miles.

Notably, the "8" was slightly translucent and almost masked a "6." I couldn't see if there was another layer underneath that, the possibility of the "6" disguising a "5."

In a time when a lot of bookstores are experiencing troubles and either closing down or catering to electronic market, the Strand stands a testament to the existence of book lovers everywhere. It's more than a tourist attraction: it's four floors of books, containing titles from university presses, indie presses, and mainstream publishers alike. And the Strand handles used and collectible books, as well.

One search I always perform in bookstores is the quick glance for books by my past instructors. The short version: successful on all counts, even academic monographs.

It's difficult to amble through the Strand--the shelves are stacked and leave only narrow walkways between them. There was a girl nestled against the shelves in one of the fiction aisles, and I had the somewhat awkward experience of towering over her on a stepladder as she swaddled herself with a scarf and, cramped in her corner, continued to read despite the hordes kindly elbowing each other for access to the stacks.

But this girl and I were the oddballs in that we were exploring the Strand alone; most of the patrons were accompanied by a friend, a lover, a partner, with whom they investigated the many stacks.

Books may not always be the dominant media for reading. I certainly have no problem with the e-reader revolution (Moby Dick or Ulysses on the Kindle, for instance, is infinitely more portable than their ink-and-paper counterparts), but we still live in the cult of the book: a society in which a tote bag becomes a universal advertisement as easily recognizable as a pair of Mickey Mouse ears. And there's something about the physical object itself that unites people--as friends, as readers.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Felicia's Journey

I've recently read William Trevor's Felicia's Journey, a short novel about a pregnant, young Irish woman who crosses over to England in search of her child's father, a man who has been working in England. The story struck me as something strangely familiar, in how Trevor grapples with the realities of economic hardships and the closed-mindedness of small communities.

The novel seemed like a snapshot of small-town culture that's equally relevant in Pennsylvania or in Ireland; Felicia has to consider the perspectives of community members, of her father and brothers, and the legacy that she has inherited simply by being Irish in the twentieth century.

What follows is a narrative that, in its depths of psychological realism and straight matter-of-fact tone, that possesses the qualities of Joyce in Dubliners: We're united with Felicia as she undergoes a needle-in-a-haystack search for her child's father and encounters sensations of paralysis in Ireland and in England.

But the novel probes depths aside from Felicia's own personal psychology; she encounters and befriends a few homeless folk and a few religious zealots throughout the course of the novel, and Trevor displays through these characters the hopelessness of lost causes.

Yet--and here, I won't spoil an ending--Trevor manages to argue that we can lose and surrender, or we can lose and continue surviving, regardless of the costs.

Felicia's Journey is far from an emotionally uplifting read, but William Trevor executes an otherwise dreary narrative with a touch of grace, wit, and sensitivity. Trevor's delicate consideration of those frequently overlooked is well worth a notice.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Real Post...soon!

Sorry for the delay--a lot going on at once right now! There will be a real post again by the end of the week. Sorry for my delinquency and my negligence!

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Future of the Library

Recently, Will Gompertz, author of the BBC blog Gomp/arts, wrote a piece on the future of the local library. It's an interesting piece that discusses the range of borrowing possibilities from grocery store checkout lines to the local pub. The central crux of Gompertz's post is, "How do we keep the lending library relevant?"

The answer, perhaps, lies in digital lending. Okay, maybe it seems daft, but here's my thought: There are e-readers out to wazoo, the iPad, the iPod, [not-so]smartphones, and several dozen other ways to read something electronically. Many of these devices are equipped with wifi capability or attached to a 3G wireless network. (In the instance of the Amazon Kindle, the Sprint wifi doesn't even cost anything--as opposed to the AT&T package offered with Apple's iPad, aka the iPod that toked up on technology growth hormone.)

The idea sparked after I was checking out textbooks for a course I'm teaching and noticed that Barnes&Noble now offers a "rent" option on textbooks. For a fee that's less than the cost of a used book, you can borrow a book for the duration of the term and then return it to the store. Then I got my NetFlix in the mail, and...

Well, here's the story: digital lending should be perfectly possible. A "NetFlix" for books would no doubt be too costly, unless rented items were shipped media mail, but the variety of e-readers should, in theory, offer readers great possibilities. Think of it like The New York Times subscription you can get for your Kindle, but instead for your local library. You pay the library an acceptable amount, and you get a one-year subscription (perhaps through Amazon or B&N or Apple, depending upon your library's e-reader preference) to electronic rentals. You can download books that you've "rented," then "send" them back.

I'm no tech whiz, and I'm aware that the idea is fraught with difficulties--precisely because of the broad scope of the e-reader market and other compatibility issues--but it may allow the library to continue bringing in some monetary resources while still protecting knowledge. It pays libraries, who in turn pay our librarians, who in turn are making sure that libraries continue to function and collect knowledge, entertainment, and all that. Something to think about.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Wednesday Poetry: "Falling," by James Dickey

"Falling," by James Dickey

A 29-year-old stewardess fell ... to her
death tonight when she was swept
through an emergency door that sud-
denly sprang open ... The body ...
was found ... three hours after the

—New York Times

The states when they black out and lie there rolling when they turn
To something transcontinental move by drawing moonlight out of the great
One-sided stone hung off the starboard wingtip some sleeper next to
An engine is groaning for coffee and there is faintly coming in
Somewhere the vast beast-whistle of space. In the galley with its racks
Of trays she rummages for a blanket and moves in her slim tailored
Uniform to pin it over the cry at the top of the door. As though she blew

The door down with a silent blast from her lungs frozen she is black
Out finding herself with the plane nowhere and her body taking by the throat
The undying cry of the void falling living beginning to be something
That no one has ever been and lived through screaming without enough air
Still neat lipsticked stockinged girdled by regulation her hat
Still on her arms and legs in no world and yet spaced also strangely
With utter placid rightness on thin air taking her time she holds it
In many places and now, still thousands of feet from her death she seems
To slow she develops interest she turns in her maneuverable body

To watch it. She is hung high up in the overwhelming middle of things in her
Self in low body-whistling wrapped intensely in all her dark dance-weight
Coming down from a marvellous leap with the delaying, dumfounding ease
Of a dream of being drawn like endless moonlight to the harvest soil
Of a central state of one’s country with a great gradual warmth coming
Over her floating finding more and more breath in what she has been using
For breath as the levels become more human seeing clouds placed honestly
Below her left and right riding slowly toward them she clasps it all
To her and can hang her hands and feet in it in peculiar ways and
Her eyes opened wide by wind, can open her mouth as wide wider and suck
All the heat from the cornfields can go down on her back with a feeling
Of stupendous pillows stacked under her and can turn turn as to someone
In bed smile, understood in darkness can go away slant slide
Off tumbling into the emblem of a bird with its wings half-spread
Or whirl madly on herself in endless gymnastics in the growing warmth
Of wheatfields rising toward the harvest moon. There is time to live
In superhuman health seeing mortal unreachable lights far down seeing
An ultimate highway with one late priceless car probing it arriving
In a square town and off her starboard arm the glitter of water catches
The moon by its one shaken side scaled, roaming silver My God it is good
And evil lying in one after another of all the positions for love
Making dancing sleeping and now cloud wisps at her no
Raincoat no matter all small towns brokenly brighter from inside
Cloud she walks over them like rain bursts out to behold a Greyhound
Bus shooting light through its sides it is the signal to go straight
Down like a glorious diver then feet first her skirt stripped beautifully
Up her face in fear-scented cloths her legs deliriously bare then
Arms out she slow-rolls over steadies out waits for something great
To take control of her trembles near feathers planes head-down
The quick movements of bird-necks turning her head gold eyes the insight-
eyesight of owls blazing into the hencoops a taste for chicken overwhelming
Her the long-range vision of hawks enlarging all human lights of cars
Freight trains looped bridges enlarging the moon racing slowly
Through all the curves of a river all the darks of the midwest blazing
From above. A rabbit in a bush turns white the smothering chickens
Huddle for over them there is still time for something to live
With the streaming half-idea of a long stoop a hurtling a fall
That is controlled that plummets as it wills turns gravity
Into a new condition, showing its other side like a moon shining
New Powers there is still time to live on a breath made of nothing
But the whole night time for her to remember to arrange her skirt
Like a diagram of a bat tightly it guides her she has this flying-skin
Made of garments and there are also those sky-divers on tv sailing
In sunlight smiling under their goggles swapping batons back and forth
And He who jumped without a chute and was handed one by a diving
Buddy. She looks for her grinning companion white teeth nowhere
She is screaming singing hymns her thin human wings spread out
From her neat shoulders the air beast-crooning to her warbling
And she can no longer behold the huge partial form of the world now
She is watching her country lose its evoked master shape watching it lose
And gain get back its houses and peoples watching it bring up
Its local lights single homes lamps on barn roofs if she fell
Into water she might live like a diver cleaving perfect plunge

Into another heavy silver unbreathable slowing saving
Element: there is water there is time to perfect all the fine
Points of diving feet together toes pointed hands shaped right
To insert her into water like a needle to come out healthily dripping
And be handed a Coca-Cola there they are there are the waters
Of life the moon packed and coiled in a reservoir so let me begin
To plane across the night air of Kansas opening my eyes superhumanly
Bright to the damned moon opening the natural wings of my jacket
By Don Loper moving like a hunting owl toward the glitter of water
One cannot just fall just tumble screaming all that time one must use
It she is now through with all through all clouds damp hair
Straightened the last wisp of fog pulled apart on her face like wool revealing
New darks new progressions of headlights along dirt roads from chaos

And night a gradual warming a new-made, inevitable world of one’s own
Country a great stone of light in its waiting waters hold hold out
For water: who knows when what correct young woman must take up her body
And fly and head for the moon-crazed inner eye of midwest imprisoned
Water stored up for her for years the arms of her jacket slipping
Air up her sleeves to go all over her? What final things can be said
Of one who starts her sheerly in her body in the high middle of night
Air to track down water like a rabbit where it lies like life itself
Off to the right in Kansas? She goes toward the blazing-bare lake
Her skirts neat her hands and face warmed more and more by the air
Rising from pastures of beans and under her under chenille bedspreads
The farm girls are feeling the goddess in them struggle and rise brooding
On the scratch-shining posts of the bed dreaming of female signs
Of the moon male blood like iron of what is really said by the moan
Of airliners passing over them at dead of midwest midnight passing
Over brush fires burning out in silence on little hills and will wake
To see the woman they should be struggling on the rooftree to become
Stars: for her the ground is closer water is nearer she passes
It then banks turns her sleeves fluttering differently as she rolls
Out to face the east, where the sun shall come up from wheatfields she must
Do something with water fly to it fall in it drink it rise
From it but there is none left upon earth the clouds have drunk it back
The plants have sucked it down there are standing toward her only
The common fields of death she comes back from flying to falling
Returns to a powerful cry the silent scream with which she blew down
The coupled door of the airliner nearly nearly losing hold
Of what she has done remembers remembers the shape at the heart
Of cloud fashionably swirling remembers she still has time to die
Beyond explanation. Let her now take off her hat in summer air the contour
Of cornfields and have enough time to kick off her one remaining
Shoe with the toes of the other foot to unhook her stockings
With calm fingers, noting how fatally easy it is to undress in midair
Near death when the body will assume without effort any position
Except the one that will sustain it enable it to rise live
Not die nine farms hover close widen eight of them separate, leaving
One in the middle then the fields of that farm do the same there is no
Way to back off from her chosen ground but she sheds the jacket
With its silver sad impotent wings sheds the bat’s guiding tailpiece
Of her skirt the lightning-charged clinging of her blouse the intimate
Inner flying-garment of her slip in which she rides like the holy ghost
Of a virgin sheds the long windsocks of her stockings absurd
Brassiere then feels the girdle required by regulations squirming
Off her: no longer monobuttocked she feels the girdle flutter shake
In her hand and float upward her clothes rising off her ascending
Into cloud and fights away from her head the last sharp dangerous shoe
Like a dumb bird and now will drop in soon now will drop

In like this the greatest thing that ever came to Kansas down from all
Heights all levels of American breath layered in the lungs from the frail
Chill of space to the loam where extinction slumbers in corn tassels thickly
And breathes like rich farmers counting: will come along them after
Her last superhuman act the last slow careful passing of her hands
All over her unharmed body desired by every sleeper in his dream:
Boys finding for the first time their loins filled with heart’s blood
Widowed farmers whose hands float under light covers to find themselves
Arisen at sunrise the splendid position of blood unearthly drawn
Toward clouds all feel something pass over them as she passes
Her palms over her long legs her small breasts and deeply between
Her thighs her hair shot loose from all pins streaming in the wind
Of her body let her come openly trying at the last second to land
On her back This is it this
All those who find her impressed
In the soft loam gone down driven well into the image of her body
The furrows for miles flowing in upon her where she lies very deep
In her mortal outline in the earth as it is in cloud can tell nothing
But that she is there inexplicable unquestionable and remember
That something broke in them as well and began to live and die more
When they walked for no reason into their fields to where the whole earth
Caught her interrupted her maiden flight told her how to lie she cannot
Turn go away cannot move cannot slide off it and assume another
Position no sky-diver with any grin could save her hold her in his arms
Plummet with her unfold above her his wedding silks she can no longer
Mark the rain with whirling women that take the place of a dead wife
Or the goddess in Norwegian farm girls or all the back-breaking whores
Of Wichita. All the known air above her is not giving up quite one
Breath it is all gone and yet not dead not anywhere else
Quite lying still in the field on her back sensing the smells
Of incessant growth try to lift her a little sight left in the corner
Of one eye fading seeing something wave lies believing
That she could have made it at the best part of her brief goddess
State to water gone in headfirst come out smiling invulnerable
Girl in a bathing-suit ad but she is lying like a sunbather at the last
Of moonlight half-buried in her impact on the earth not far
From a railroad trestle a water tank she could see if she could
Raise her head from her modest hole with her clothes beginning
To come down all over Kansas into bushes on the dewy sixth green
Of a golf course one shoe her girdle coming down fantastically
On a clothesline, where it belongs her blouse on a lightning rod:

Lies in the fields in this field on her broken back as though on
A cloud she cannot drop through while farmers sleepwalk without
Their women from houses a walk like falling toward the far waters
Of life in moonlight toward the dreamed eternal meaning of their farms
Toward the flowering of the harvest in their hands that tragic cost
Feels herself go go toward go outward breathes at last fully
Not and tries less once tries tries ah, god—

Monday, August 30, 2010

Some Words I Might've Said

Hey there, friends! I'm official Rutgers MFA propaganda. Click here to go to the Rutgers-Newark MFA blog and read the interview.

That's more or less why I made the decision I did. Enjoy!

After the Storm

Five years ago, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast and claimed about 1,800 lives. President Obama has astutely pointed out that the disaster was both natural (a storm, duh) and man-made (a combination of poor planning and even poorer engineering). The BBC--my usual news source, I know--has done a pleasant write up of this anniversary.

But it's important to remember that this isn't only a natural or a political disaster; it's a conflict that tears at human life, that generates a tempest of emotions and troubles, and it's this element that makes the remembrance worthwhile. Although we mourn those who are lost and the districts of New Orleans that suffered, we celebrate because, out of the driftwood and wreckage, an existence gets hammered together. But it's also an opportunity for us to delve into the soul of America and see exactly how this country relates to itself.

So how do we keep those sentiments relevant while performing this investigation? You guessed it--literature.

Unfortunately, the body of Hurricane Katrina fiction (and I hate that I'm actually posting this link) is meager, and admittedly, I've read almost none of it--perhaps because the Hurricane Katrina stories don't get the hype that the burgeoning genre of the 9/11 novel gets. 9/11 appears to have been the seminal event of the current generation--America brought to its knees and its hegemony threatened--but Hurricane Katrina actually offers a more poignant portal into American self-discoveries. Instead of just the crashing of the American dream, Hurricane Katrina provides an opportunity to explore how the gears of our society grate against one another and if it's possible to make this great machine move forward again on a personal as opposed to a nationalist level.

The worst of the Katrina novels would be like the worst of the 9/11 novels: focusing only on stasis and inability to cope. But this isn't the reality, as some novelists (and here I have to praise my mentor, Porochista Khakpour, and her novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects), have cleverly observed: Regardless of the extent of catastrophe, life continues, one step at a time. And as Porochista's novel shows us, tragedy--large scale or not--is always personal, and it's an opportunity to recast notions of identity. Disaster is a porthole for discovery.

There's another thing a Katrina novel could do: explore the race relations in American urban centers. Most of the Katrina stuff I've read (most notably, Katie Ford's poetry collection Colosseum, which I suggest you pick up) studies how life is going to pick up again afterward the crisis. The past has been destroyed, now we rebuild.

Though Ford's collection gets the whole bit about tragedy being personal (her poems are somewhat confessional in that they conjure images from her own experiences in New Orleans during Katrina) this rebuilding idea remains far too facile. It's practically preemptive nostalgia. Perhaps soon we'll get a Katrina narrative that's focusing on the spirit of the Katrina recovery--but also on the spirit of America and the souls of those people who have lived through the crisis.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Little Women, Big Fanfic

First of all, I highly recommend that whenever you see bargain books, you skip on over to that aisle and make friends with all of the $5 hardcovers you can find. It's a better buy than the $5 movie bin.

A recent excursion to the bargain book section in the Altoona, PA Barnes & Noble opened me up to a gem that shows that fanfiction--a reader writing an independent extension or re-imagining of a work, in short--is actually a viable literary mode. The book: the 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner, Geraldine Brooks's March.

Granted: most fanfics are the product of obsessions with pop culture (think animé, Harry Potter, comic book characters, and fans re-shaping those worlds), and many fanfics are flaky or juvenile in writing style (or raunchy in terms of content, but that comes with the territory). But it's a genre that gets unnecessarily maligned, simply because people believe to be the antithesis of serious literature.

Geraldine Brooks spins a fanfic out of a plot hole in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women; she takes the mention that the girls' father, Chaplain March, has embarked on the Civil War with Union soldiers. The novel follows March from a moment early in his tour of duty to the injury and illness that call his wife from Concord to his bedside in Washington, D.C. From here, Brooks investigates the moral complexities and ambiguities of war, and by filling this gap in the narrative, Brooks's fanfic adventures into the silences of Alcott's classic children's tale.

Fanfic or not, though, Brooks crafts an elegant novel that is literary in tone and voice yet remains "canon" (not "canon" in the sense of "literary canon"; I mean "canon" in the fanfic sense, that her story fits the author's original narrative). And the book isn't pastiche, either; Brooks isn't simply sliding into Alcott's voice and writing a blasé authorized sequel. It's a novel that delves into March's unspoken tour of duty, into the darkness of war, into the vileness of human prejudices, and into the philosophical bargaining that accounts for our personal philosophies.

If you're a fan of Little Women, I encourage you to look into Geraldine Brooks's March. It's evidence that fanfics are more than just creative speculations; fanfiction is a viable genre waiting for exploration.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Wednesday Poetry: "Author's Prayer," by Ilya Kaminsky

"Author's Prayer," from Dancing in Odessa, by Ilya Kaminsky

If I speak for the dead, I must leave
this animal of my body,

I must write the same poem over and over,
for an empty page is the white flag of their surrender.

If I speak for them, I must walk on edge
of myself, I must live as a blind man

who runs through rooms without
touching the furniture.

Yes, I live. I can cross the streets asking "What ear is it?"
I can dance in my sleep and laugh

in front of the mirror.
Even sleep is a prayer, Lord,

I will praise your madness, and
in a language not mine, speak

of music that wakes us, music
in which we move. For whatever I say

is a kind of petition, and the darkest
days must I praise.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Ghost in the Story

Recently, I've been [attempting] to work on writing short fiction again, so I've delved into the usual suspects--The Best American Short Stories, the O. Henry Prize Stories, and all of those intimidating and over-sized fiction anthologies (The Art of the Tale, the Norton anthology, et cetera).

Of course, this is no way to decide what a short story is--there are far too many modes, voices, and styles to be so reductive about encountering any literary form. But it can be a decent way of seeing how other writers work within the confines of the form. The short story, by its very nature, is like the Campbell's condensed soup version of fiction. It takes all the stuff, packs them into one narrative can, and then lets the reader's imagination do the rest (easy as just add water!).

In my recent investigations, though, I've noticed an alarming trend in a number of the "best" short stories of recent years. Simply, it's as if the innards of the story aren't actually present. There's exposition--so we get facts, certainly, and we're just told what has happened--but it's as if the short story has gone intangible on us.

I started to get this feeling when I was reading Daniel Alarcón's "The Idiot President" in the 2009 Best American. Alarcón tells us the story of an actor's two-month tour with a theatre company, and--despite the information ("pop reworkings of García Lorca, stentorian readings of Brazilian soap-opera scripts, always with a political edge")--there seems to be hardly anything there at all. It's simply encyclopedic, a listing of what they've done. Where are the details?

What we don't get--even from Alarcón's first person narrator--is a hint as to what this environment is. So we're in "the anxious years of the war, when [the theatre group] was known for its brazen trips into the conflict zone, bringing theater to the people, and, in the city, for staging all-night marathon shows." But the words are haunted by the fact that there ought to be something visible and physical behind it. The words are acting like the plyboard blocking off a construction site. Alarcón is trying to build something, but he won't let us see it.

This is the trend I've noticed in recent short stories: There's a temptation to pass off information for detail, which betrays what the short story does best. That is, taking a moment and making it visceral and personal. Perhaps this is why other genres--the novel, the movie, the graphic novel/comic book--continue to get more public attention than the short story. Those other forms understand that human experience isn't simply a recounting of lists. There has to be something to interact with, not necessarily something visual but at the very least sensory.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Once upon a Time, There Was a Ralph Lauren [stereotype-laden] Fairy Tale...

Well, Ralph Lauren has decided that apparently there's something to all the hype about children's lit. After all, their most recent children's catalogue is an interactive Flash video modeled after a storybook.

Harry Connick, Jr. narrates The RL Gang: A Fantastically Amazing School Adventure, which puts stylish kids in Ralph Lauren designs against backdrops that appear as either paper cutouts or chalk drawings. And if one listens to the stories, they're...well, hardly fantastic.

Willow, the first child shown in the video, represents the extreme of this back-to-school fantasy; she resembles a modern day Robin Hood with her hat--a style that, no doubt, is not about to earn her any props on the playground. (It may, however, clinch her the lead in the elementary school's production of Peter Pan!) The other children in the video become less stylized and seem poised to sell Ralph Lauren's brand of cultural and ethnic identities to school children.

Clothes--yes, they certainly can be exciting, especially for fashionistas and those who enjoy a nice, new sweater. But these kids are being dressed up like their 20-something equivalents. There's Jasper, whose polo shirt, baseball mitt, and wavy blonde hair make him look like he's about to go recruiting for TKE. (Thank your lucky stars that his collar *isn't* popped.) Then Mae, the Asian girl, who wears a sweater over a collared shirt; it's as if the RL ad department has already relegated her to a life of crunching numbers and whipping out laptops or TI-83s whenever a problem appears. The worst of the lot, though, is Zoe, an African American girl with large, frizzed hair forced under a knit cap; her hair sags down around the sides of her face like Snoopy ears, and she's dressed in a flannel shirt under what appears to be a black, pleather bomber's jacket.

Ralph Lauren is dolling kids up as stereotypes before they're even old enough to understand what they're lampooning. But--if that weren't enough--you can click on each child's image and open their closet, which can help parents foist these fashions (er, stereotypes) on their kids. Or, just buy the hardcover book!

All this from the world's "first shoppable storybook," a narrative catalogue in stereotypes. Respond as you will.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Wednesday Poetry: "Of Nicolette," by e.e. cummings

I've been gone from this far too long...but I'm finally "settled" (mostly) into Newark, and I've got the books all shelved and made plenty of places for my cat to hide and scurry! Upcoming posts--which will happen, I promise--include a glance at the American short story and whatever else happens that I find of interest.

But let's ease things back in with a bit of Wednesday Poetry...

"Of Nicolette," by e.e. cummings

dreaming in marble all the castle lay
like some gigantic ghost-flower born of night
blossoming in white towers to the moon,
soft sighed the passionate darkness to the tune
of tiny troubadours, and (phantom-white)
dumb-blooming boughs let fall their glorious snows,
and the unearthly sweetness of a rose
swam upward from the troubled heart of May;

a Winged Passion woke and one by one
there fell upon the night, like angel's tears,
the syllables of that mysterious prayer,
and as an opening lily drowsy-fair
(when from her couch of poppy petals peers
the sleepy morning) gently draws apart
her curtains, and lays bare her trembling heart
with beads of dew made jewels by the sun,

so one high shining tower (which as a glass
turned light to flame and blazed with snowy fire)
unfolding, gave the moon a nymphlike face,
a form whose snowy symmetry of grace
haunted the limbs as music haunts the lyre,
a creature of white hands, who letting fall
a thread of lustre from the castle wall
glided, a drop of radiance, to the grass--

shunning the sudden moonbeam's treacherous snare
she sought the harbouring dark, and (catching up
her delicate silk) all white, with shining feet,
went forth into the dew: right wildly beat
her heart at every kiss of daisy-cup,
and from her cheek the beauteous colour went
with every bough that reverently bent
to touch the yellow wonder of her hair.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

On again, off again: A Hiatus in the Machine

This summer, I've been on again/off again with keeping the blog up and going. It's been worse than Ross and Rachel. (I love my blog, I hate my blog, I love my blog, I hate my blog, I...)

Presently, I'm getting ready for a move out to Newark, New Jersey, where I'll be starting in the MFA in Creative Writing at Rutgers. It'll be a good time. But that likewise means that I'm busy-busy-busy, with a number of final Pennsylvania trips and then the tedious task of packing up all the books and Uhauling everything out to the densely populated cities of New Jersey.

There may be updates--expect one on Friday, to be sure--but this is your fair warning: updates will most likely be spotty during the next two weeks. I'll make a sincere effort to get a few posted, though.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Girl Who Predicted the Twenty-First Century

Over the weekend, I started the third and final installment of the late Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, the third and final installment of his acclaimed Millennium trilogy.

Okay, the books are thrillers, and unnecessary descriptions of characters' clothing and Ikea shopping trips abound. But they're at least fun. And simultaneously terrifying.

Keep in mind that Larsson wrote these books in 2004 before delivering them to his Swedish publisher. And we should keep that in mind because the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, followed investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and hacker extraordinaire Lisbeth Salander as they toppled a corrupt financial empire. Lisbeth, an unlikely heroine at just shy of five feet tall and with piercings and tattoos, uncovers that this empire has been built on shady speculations, mortgages, and other unsound investments--all of it on the eve of the financial crisis that sent shockwaves through the global economy.

The second book, The Girl Who Played with Fire, is more of a manhunt novel, filled with false accusations and a slightly overabundant population of murders. The best part of that novel: several pages going through a shopping trip Salander takes to Ikea.

But the third novel again strikes me as strangely prescient. Salander and Blomkvist find themselves mired in an attempt to unravel a government conspiracy formulated by an inner circle of Sapo, the Swedish Security Police. The plot has gone out of control, illustrating the underhanded nature of even a democratic government. But also, these plots negatively effect citizens and decimate their personal liberties and reputations. Technically, this secret "Section" of Sapo doesn't exist and isn't documented, but its history over a few decades has had unwieldy consequences.

Then, I checked The Washington Post and found that post-9/11 America could have learned a thing or three from Larsson's novel: our secret bureaucracies have become too unwieldy, too expensive, too clumsy. Nobody really knows what's going on, and the impact could be devastating.

So, as campy and cliche as Larsson's novels can be, I think he possessed freakishly good foresight and insight, the attributes that his novels claim all thinkers--writers, journalists, investigators, hackers, even editors--need to possess in order to fix things up and protect citizens.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Wednesday Poetry: "An Apprehension," by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

"An Apprehension," by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

IF all the gentlest-hearted friends I know
Concentred in one heart their gentleness,
That still grew gentler till its pulse was less
For life than pity,--I should yet be slow
To bring my own heart nakedly below
The palm of such a friend, that he should press
Motive, condition, means, appliances,

My false ideal joy and fickle woe,
Out full to light and knowledge; I should fear
Some plait between the brows, some rougher chime
In the free voice. O angels, let your flood
Of bitter scorn dash on me ! do ye hear
What I say who hear calmly all the time
This everlasting face to face with GOD ?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Move Over, Moose and Squirrel

Because Boris and Natasha aren't done yet. And neither is the spy swap saga. It might just be getting longer--and more unnecessarily dramatic--than the Twilight saga.

It seems, now, that everybody is getting into the spy swap that recently occurred between the United States and Russia after ten folks were arrested in the US for spying for the Motherland. As any casual viewer of Cold War-era politics can tell you, the US and Russia don't have the most trusting of relationships, and frankly, these sleeper agents shouldn't come as a surprise to anybody. During the late days of the Bush Administration, when the US worked to stiffarm compliance with its proposed missile shield, feelings ran hot, and US plans sparked tension--and dissent--from Sarah Palin's across-the-Bering-Strait neighbors.

But now, the spy swap is starting to obtain a sort of cult, "OMG Britney Spears shaved her head!" status. Recently, two of the Russians expelled from Moscow in the swap--Igor Sutyagin and Anna Chapman--have been sighted in a London hotel. Not just sighted, mind you; technically, they've been reported as "being undercover" in a hotel. And now there are questions of where they're going to go...can they get visas? Will Chapman, who has a British passport through a previous marriage, be permitted entry into the country?

This is, by now, a usual pH/Penguin in the Machine complaint...but (1) why are people surprised that there are still spies and undercover agents, (2) why are these the headline-grabbing current events instead of things that might be of more import to daily existence, and (3) while I feel this would make an interesting human interest story or essay...why don't we focus on the policies and the public personas of the governments these spies were representing? Why don't we ask why they were spying, for what they were searching? It's a question that requires introspection, as opposed to a sort of oohing and aahing that apparently comes much easier.

We have more important concerns. Like snapping photographs of spies in hotels. Just you wait, in the future photographs of a spy at a fountain will be like postage stamps: everywhere, yellowed, thumbed over, and seen by everyone.

A recent Least I Could Do strip provides, I think, the best possible response to this conundrum: Get the experts after all of these spies. I imagine they'd do just as well, and it wouldn't have the predictable inanities of a soap opera plot.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Lady Gaga, Queen of Stalkerbook

So the BBC--and many other news outlets--recently reported that Lady Gaga has garnered more Facebook fans than any other living person. At present, you can view her Stalkerbook fan page and see that she's racked up more than eleven million fans. Yowza.

This isn't a complaint about Lady Gaga as a social phenomenon or anything else. But it makes me wonder about the world's perspective on things. So I decided to scour the Stalkerbook fan pages for, you know, a universal ideal or two. Something every one, regardless of race or creed or musical tastes, could get behind.

So I looked up love: There does indeed exist a Facebook page for love (I'm now a fan), and it has just shy of two hundred eighty thousand fans. So...Lady Gaga has nine hundred thousand fans more than love.

It's a strange, small thing, but it's enough to make me question individual priorities. Lady Gaga's music may be catchy, or exciting, or enjoyable (or, even to a few, perhaps annoying and obnoxious), but it's a little dubious that an entertainer can tally more fans than a core human emotion. Aren't we all fans of love?

Really. Become a fan of love. Also of the Bucknell University Press, but also of love. Because love, no matter with whom or for whom, is a good thing. Always

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Wednesday Poetry: "The Plaster," by W.S. Merwin

"The Plaster," from The Lice, by W.S. Merwin

How unlike you
To have left the best of your writings here
Behind the plaster where they were never to be found
These stanzas of long lines into which the Welsh words
Had been flung like planks from a rough sea
How will I

Ever know now how much was not like you
And what else was committed to paper here
On the dark burst sofa where you would later die
Its back has left a white mark on the white wall and above that
Five and a half indistinct squares of daylight
Like pages in water
Slide across the blind plaster

Into which you slipped the creased writings as into a mail slot
In a shroud

This is now the house of the rain that falls from death
The sky is moving its things in from under the trees
In silence
As it must have started to do even then
There is still a pile of dirty toys and rags
In the corner where they found the children
Rolled in sleep

Other writings
Must be dissolving in the roof
Twitching black edges in cracks of the wet fireplaces
Stuck to shelves in the filthy pantry
Never to be found
What is like you now

Who were haunted all your life by the best of you
Hiding in your death

Monday, July 5, 2010

For the Fans, the Fanfare around Wonder Woman's No-Longer-Unnecessarily-Patriotic Costume

You didn't hear it here first: But Wonder Woman, the iconic female superhero in D.C. comics' triumvirate (she's there along with Superman and the Dark Knight Detective), has traded in the star-spangled swimsuit for something...well, something that might be considered clothing.

While Reuters has referred to the outfit as a "21st Century Makeover," fans are doing their usual bit: Complaining because a scantily clad female character is suddenly wearing clothes. So my diatribe may sound like something to that effect. But my problem with Wonder Woman isn't that she's finally clothed (I mean, I'm sure any woman could back us up on this, but...crimefighting in a one-piece? That cannot be comfortable). My problem is that Wonder Woman has gone super 1990s in all the wrong ways.

Let's take a look at Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman, aka not Lynda Carter from the '60s. First of all, leggings as pants? No, thank you. Then there's the corset, and the jacket that more or less advertises early '90s biker dive bars. And let's not get started on the choker necklace. Aside from the Wonder Woman logo at the top of the corset, there's not much here that looks like Wonder Woman.

It's the new, "hipper," edgier Wonder Woman...but it seems to fall flat, such as when D.C. remodeled Superman in the 1990s by making him all electric and shoving him in a blue-and-white jumpsuit. What strikes me as odd here is that Wonder Woman isn't really defining the new millennium (though she might've stolen those leggings from a sorority girl, though, btw, leggings are not pants); the design is a rehashing of nearly twenty years ago.

So I'm not sure what to make of this new Wonder Woman, though if her superhero power is making you wonder why she's decided on these duds, then it's certainly working....

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Old One-Two Punch

I just read Truman Capote's novella Breakfast at Tiffany's, a little story that the late Norman Mailer particularly loved. Mailer said that "Capote is tart as a grand aunt, but in his way he is a ballsy little guy." Capote's style got me to thinking about what exactly it was--that verve, that tenacity--that American lit had in the 1940s through 1960s, when things were a bit more pugnacious than they are now, where machismo was a bit more cherished, where folks were far cheekier than they dare to be now.

But what I noticed in Breakfast at Tiffany's is how Capote is at once tough but sensitive; the fierce front of his prose actually works to reveal the sentiments of his characters. In Breakfast at Tiffany's, the main character--who has worked to distance himself from the mysterious Holly Golightly--finds himself called to Joe Bell's bar, where a photograph induces the recollection of the narrator's interactions with Holly.

Capote's prose is terse, yet sweet. Consider, for instance the narrator's final weeks in Holly's presence, a sequence that Capote handles in a few words of exposition that seem, on the surface, rather blunt. However, the quickness belies an underlying attachment--and a sort of brotherly love--that the narrator has for Holly:
"Those final weeks, spanning end of summer and the beginning of another autumn, are blurred in memory, perhaps because our understanding of each other had reached that sweet depth where two people communicate more often in silence than in words: an affectionate quietness replaces the tensions, the unrelaxed chatter and chastising that produce a friendship's more showy, more in the surface sense, dramatic moments....we spent entire evenings together during which we exchanged less than a hundred words; once, we walked all the way to Chinatown, ate a chow-mein supper, bought some paper lanterns and stole a box of joss sticks, and then moseyed across the Brooklyn bridge..."

This is one of the small joys of the novella: that such large spans of time, collapsed into a millisecond, reveal far more than page after page of scene might. There's something to Capote's prose that wants to simply tell us what happened and how the last weeks with Holly Golightly were spent. But at the same time, we hear seeping through that narrator's word the "sweet depth" that exists between himself and Holly, and we can almost see them striding alongside each other in a delicate, peaceful silence. It's as if we're observing the knowing nods between them--simple gestures that reveal two minds in sync--as they enjoy their quiet--yet exciting--night in Chinatown.

Usually, straightforward, linear prose isn't exactly my thing, nor is the terse-n'-tough minimalism of the Hemingway years generally one of my favorite styles. But Capote shows us how effective this can be. On one hand, it's tough, fast, sure of itself, and in that approach we can see precisely how emotional and sentimental a good prose narrative can be.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Wednesday Poetry: "Conversation Among the Ruins," by Sylvia Plath

Striking some new ground in Wednesday poetry with Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), who along with Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, and W.D. Snodgrass is known for advancing the genre of so-called "confessional" poetry. In these poems, it's assumed that the speaker is the poet and that what we're hearing is the poet's actual sentiments and perspectives. (IMHO, I think confessional poetry has ruined many later poems written in the first person, because now students of literature are trained to say "The poet says..." instead of recognizing that a narrator doesn't have to be the poet her-/himself.)

But this poem, "Conversation Among Ruins," has a blip of the first person in the opening line and then moves into a more lyrical mode. Afterwards, the first person is mostly communal--an "our," for instance--so instead of self-centered whining we get Plath trying to negotiate a relationship; the title intimates as much, in informing the reader that this poem is a conversation, a dialogue of sorts, on a ruined property. Plath takes us from the steps of the narrator's "elegant house" and then, through appropriating the imagery of a dilapidated estate, reveals the crumbling of any structure or system--actual or imagined--over time.

"Conversation Among Ruins"

Through portico of my elegant house you stalk
With your wild furies, disturbing garlands of fruit
And the fabulous lutes and peacocks, rending the net
Of all decorum which holds the whirlwind back.
Now, rich order of walls is fallen; rooks croak
Above the appalling ruin; in bleak light
Of your stormy eye, magic takes flight
Like a daunted witch, quitting castle when real days break.

Fractured pillars frame prospects of rock;
While you stand heroic in coat and tie, I sit
Composed in Grecian tunic and psyche-knot,
Rooted to your black look, the play turned tragic:
Which such blight wrought on our bankrupt estate,
What ceremony of words can patch the havoc?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Wednesday Poetry: "Grief Thief of Time," by Dylan Thomas

Today's bit of Wednesday poetry comes from Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, most famous for "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night." Enjoy!

"Grief Thief of Time"
Grief thief of time crawls off,
The moon-drawn grave, with the seafaring years,
The knave of pain steals off
The sea-halved faith that blew time to his knees,
The old forget the cries,
Lean time on tide and times the wind stood rough,
Call back the castaways
Riding the sea light on a sunken path,
The old forget the grief,
Hack of the cough, the hanging albatross,
Cast back the bone of youth
And salt-eyed stumble bedward where she lies
Who tossed the high tide in a time of stories
And timelessly lies loving with the thief.

Now Jack my fathers let the time-faced crook,
Death flashing from his sleeve,
With swag of bubbles in a seedy sack
Sneak down the stallion grave,
Bull's-eye the outlaw through a eunuch crack
And free the twin-boxed grief,
No silver whistles chase him down the weeks'
Dayed peaks to day to death,
These stolen bubbles have the bites of snakes
And the undead eye-teeth,
No third eye probe into a rainbow's sex
That bridged the human halves,
All shall remain and on the graveward gulf
Shape with my fathers' thieves.

Monday, May 31, 2010

An Argument for the Novella

On Sunday, I read two novellas--Miguel de Cervantes's The Dialogue of the Dogs and Marcel Proust's The Lemoine Affair--and although neither is the most cinematic of pieces, the novella seems to offer something that neither the short story nor the novel does.

During the past few years, I've noticed an increase in the volume of novella-length works disguising themselves as novels. Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach stands as one example, as does any of Philip Roth's most recent novels. Usually, this is a widely-ignored form, since it stands at an awkward middle ground between the short story and the novel. Also, there are production costs involved: It costs a lot less to produce and print a 250-page collection of stories or a 300+ page novel than it does for a single work that runs in the neighborhood of 150 pages or less.

So why should we bother with the novella? I consider pieces that can be read in a single long sitting--think the equivalent of a movie, so between an hour to three hours--to be novellas. At this length, the novella can have the immediacy of a movie while aspiring to the brevity of a short story. And it's likely that the novella is a better fit for readers on the go than the long novel: The physical thing doesn't have the bulk of a novel, and even in an electronic format, it's something that you could finish on a commute or two via public transportation.

Or if you're thinking of before-you-go-to-bed reading, a novella won't leave you at the point where you've been slogging through chapter after chapter for months, only to realize that you no longer recall what happened three hundred pages ago.

On this note, here's the economic argument: A new release DVD, I've noticed, generally costs around $25-30, more for BluRay. The price eventually whittles down to about $10 to $15. Say that's about three hours in length, so you're spending about $8 to $10 per hour of entertainment when it's new, less as it's been out on the market for a while. And the replay value is infinite, or you can take it to a used-movie shop and get store credit or a new movie if you didn't enjoy it. The same thing applies to novellas, and it's the same cost breakdown for the same amount of time (and the trade-in argument here applies to used bookstores!). A novella such as On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan retailed at around $25 in hardcover, then about $15 in paperback.
Think of the novella as the literary equivalent of the movie. It has to be short and direct, but also expansive. And the form isn't as obscure as we might think. A number of great, classic works--not just Cervantes's Dialogue or Proust's Lemoine Affair--are generally considered novellas: Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

As a little (and inexpensive) taste of what novellas have to offer, I suggest you check out two series of books produced by Melville House Publishing: The Contemporary Art of the Novella series and also their series of classic novellas, The Art of the Novella.