Thursday, June 16, 2011

Bloomsday 2011

On 16 June 1904, James Joyce's Leopold Bloom traversed the streets of Dublin. Since Ulysses was first published in 1922, Bloomsday has become something of a holiday to Joyce fans and literati everywhere. So! There are a few things, in addition to the L.A. Times list of ways to spend Bloomsday, that you can do to celebrate this Joycean day.

Here are my suggestions:
1.) Yes, it's a stereotype, but certainly one with lots of truth to it: The Irish like their booze. Have yourself a merry little Thursday with a Guinness, or perchance a shot of Jameson.
2.) Take a long perambulation through your neighborhood, complete with long contemplations of your neighbors.
3.) Enjoy a cheese sandwich: "Peace and war depend on some fellow's digestion. Religions. Christmas turkeys and geese. Slaughter of innocents. Eat drink and be merry. Then casual wards full after. Heads bandaged. Cheese digests all but itself. Mity cheese.
"—Have you a cheese sandwich?"
4.) Don't let yourself get duped by advertising: "Potted meats. What is home without Plumtree's potted meat? Incomplete. What a stupid ad! Under the obituary notices they stuck it. All up a plumtree. Dignam's potted meat."
5.) Last (and certainly not least) consider what animals feel. Particularly our feline friends: "They call them stupid. They understand what we say better than we understand them. She understands all she wants to. Vindictive too. Cruel. Her nature. Curious mice never squeal. Seem to like it. Wonder what I look like to her. Height of a tower? No, she can jump me. [...] She blinked up out of her avid shameclosing eyes, mewing plaintively and long, showing him her milkwhite teeth. He watched the dark eyeslits narrowing with greed till her eyes were green stones. Then he went to the dresser, took the jug Hanlon's milkman had just filled for him, poured warmbubbled milk on a saucer and set it slowly on the floor."

I'm aware that this isn't a real post, but! Enjoy Bloomsday--fun for the whole family (and even the cats)!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

New Fiction: "Space Cases," at Revolution House


Head over to Revolution House Magazine to read their inaugural issue online (or save the pdf); my story "Space Cases" appears in this issue. I couldn't ask for a better gift a day before Bloomsday.

So read it and enjoy it. Seriously. And direct any comments you have on "Space Cases" via the comment function here on the blog!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Almost famous? Sure, why not?

A blog post over at The Story Prize has announced that Phedra Deonarine and I are Larry Dark's new assistants for the prize:

Sadly, my pic is just further evidence in my long-ago announced "I need a photographer who isn't my cat" issue.

More anon--and I'll link to the occasional guest posts that I write for The Story Prize!

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Cynic: Oscar-nominated Films and My [Apparent] Discontents

The only way I can describe my relationship with television and films is to shamelessly pilfer some words from the late and great David Foster Wallace's essay "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction": "[...] there's no denying the simple fact that people in the U.S.A. watch so much television basically because it's fun. I know I watch for fun, most of the time, and that at least 51% of the time I do have fun when I watch. This doesn't mean I do not take television seriously." I, for one, feel that the same could (and should) be said about watching films.

Yet, the last few movies I've [attempted] to watch have left me yearning for something more substantial. And these are Oscar-nominated flicks, the creme de la creme, if you will. Now, keep in mind that I've cried at episodes of Doctor Who and at certain moments in Harry Potter novels--not because they're the classiest brand of literary texts, but just because characters were so well evoked. I'll try to twitterpate the last two of these experiences--140 characters or less--to convey what I mean.
Juno: If I didn't adore Ellen Page and her snark, this would've flatlined before she finished chugging Sunny D.
American Beauty: Wait. Family Guy parodying a cheerleader unbuttoning her blouse is more poignant. Angst-enough to shame Holden Caulfield, who at least has some verve.

And I'm not being stodgy, "I've-got-a-lot-of-books" guy. Yet...there needs to be a bit more going on than simply the plot, and I feel that's what happens with a lot of these Academy Award nominees. They have good stories, and the stories are left hauling a lot of the tensions. In Juno, Ellen Page acts circles around the rest of the cast. In American Beauty, rose petals out-act Kevin Spacey's award-winning performance, IMHO.

Neither Juno nor American Beauty are bad films, but I wanted more in terms of character development and personalities--which I didn't quite feel in either flick.

So, here's the request: What are some films, faithful readers, that you've found in which a rich plot and strikingly-evoked characters evolve hand-in-hand?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Wednesday Poetry: "The Mute Cat," by Les Murray

Consider today's entry a follow-up to Monday's post, a glance at a bit of what Les Murray can do as a poet, when not writing about mental illness. This poem comes from his 2010 collection Taller When Prone.

I'll admit that this selection may or may not have something to do with my long-ago conversion to the loyal ranks of cat-adorers everywhere. As a bibliophile and ailurophile (fancyshmancy term for cat-lover), I must say that my favorite stanza is the final one.

"The Mute Cat," by Les Murray

Clean water in the house
but the cat laps up clay water
outside. Drinking the earth.

His pile, being perfect,
ignores the misting rain.

A charcoal Russian
he opens his mouth like other cats
and mimes a greeting mew.

At one bound top-speed across
the lawn and halfway up
the zippy pear tree. Why? Branches?
Stopping puzzles him.

Eloquent of purr
or indignant tail
he politely hates to be picked up.
His human friend never does it.

He finds a voice
in the flyscreen, rattling it,
hanging cruciform on it,
all to be let in
to walk on his man.

He can fish food pellets
out of the dispenser, but waits,
preferring to be served.

A mouse he was playing
on the grass ran in under him.
Disconsolate, at last he wandered
off -- and drew and fired
himself in one motion.

He is often above you
and appears where you will go.

He swallows his scent, and
discreet with his few stained birds
he carries them off to read.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Leashing the Black Dog: Thoughts on Depression Memoirs

A while back, The New York Times had a strong review of Les Murray's memoir Killing the Black Dog and his poetry collection Taller When Prone, both published by FSG. Meghan O'Rourke, in the review's opening sentence, describes the "visceral smoldering" that is the hallmark of Murray's poetry. Certainly true in his poetry--but that vehemence and power seem absent, as if panned away, in the prose of his memoir.

Perhaps, this comes from the fact that Murray's piece isn't a memoir at all; in an afterword written in 2009, Murray informs the reader that Killing the Black Dog was originally written as a lecture in 1998. The piece has the casualness of an oration, a stream-of-consciousness flow that seems more fitting to a speech than a memoir. The text's long, rambling paragraphs contribute to this sensation and flood us with surface-level accounts of the author's psychological and familial troubles.

I don't protest the fragmentation of the narrative--I imagine that, for most folks who have struggled with a mental illness, the worst depressive episodes feel frozen in time, and then memory becomes a desperate jumble to scrapple together some order, some unifying logic to life. It's canning the lecture as a memoir and then appending the 25 "Black Dog Poems" that seems a disservice to the reader. The book--at a meager 84 pages (not including the indices)--needed about another fifty pages to explore the subject matter.

The poems draw from and hearken back to the episodes in the memoir, but the memoir needs to be developed beyond the lecture script and into the memoir. The memoir tells us, flatly, many of the traumatic events, without dramatizing them or analyzing them. His mother's death, for instance, comes to us in such vague approaches as this: "In facing my personal inner history, I had to look at some dark stuff. I had to remember what had felt like a growing dislike of me on the part of my poor mother, as her miscarriages ate her happiness away, and to recall a nightmare sense on my part [...]" (19). The afterword to the memoir attempts to provide the expansion, but it seems--to this reader--to be too little, too late.

O'Rourke's contention--"Now comes a book that offers a powerfully candid view of Murray’s struggles with depression — one that will speak even to readers unfamiliar with his work"--also seems a bit off, since we need the poems (and ergo, familiarizing ourselves with Murray's work) to feel the full impact of Murray's narrative. Best not to let the horse run off without the cart, methinks.

William Styron's Darkness Visible continues to be the standout depression memoir, though Murray's piece can be read as an interesting complement, as the two books are part of the same dialogue. (At one juncture, Murray charges that certain aspects of Styron's book are too facile, but Murray's book would need some expansion to further that claim.)

So pardon the rough review--Murray has assembled his tragic story, and the interplay between the lecture and the poems is an ambitious formal choice. The lecture portion of the book just requires something more--that stylistic, vocal difference between a talk and a confession.