Adam Johnson Wins the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Adam Johnson won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for fiction yesterday. He won for his 2012 novel The Orphan Master’s Son, which the jury notes is

an exquisitely crafted novel that carries the reader on an adventuresome journey into the depths of totalitarian North Korea and into the most intimate spaces of the human heart.

I gave the novel a somewhat mixed review—Johnson is a powerful prose-slinger and a fantastic storyteller, but The Orphan Master’s Son is overtly beholden to a standard of realism that the novel’s tone shifts cannot bear. I wrote—

The biggest problem though is the overwhelming suspicion that Johnson is simply out of his element in trying to inhabit the North Korean imagination. Although he’s clearly done his research, North Korea is essentially closed to the rest of the world. And Johnson is a U.S. American. I mean, there’s this whole other impossible-to-digest ball of wax here that makes Johnson’s admirable intent to write a novel about “propaganda” just way too complicated to suss out in a review, and I’ll admit that I tend to read like a reviewer, and that these notions just bugged the hell out of me as the novel progressed.

Willa Cather on Mark Twain

If there is anything which should make an American sick and disgusted at the literary taste of his country, and almost swerve his allegiance to his flag it is that controversy between Mark Twain and Max O’Rell, in which the Frenchman proves himself a wit and a gentleman and the American shows himself little short of a clown and an all around tough. The squabble arose apropos of Paul Bourget’s new book on America, “Outre Mer,” a book which deals more fairly and generously with this country than any book yet written in a foreign tongue. Mr. Clemens did not like the book, and like all men of his class, and limited mentality, he cannot criticise without becoming personal and insulting. He cannot be scathing without being a blackguard. He tried to demolish a serious and well considered work by publishing a scurrilous, slangy and loosely written article about it. In this article Mr. Clemens proves very little against Mr. Bourget and a very great deal against himself. He demonstrates clearly that he is neither a scholar, a reader or a man of letters and very little of a gentleman. His ignorance of French literature is something appalling. Why, in these days it is as necessary for a literary man to have a wide knowledge of the French masterpieces as it is for him to have read Shakespeare or the Bible. What man who pretends to be an author can afford to neglect those models of style and composition. George Meredith, Thomas Hardy and Henry James excepted, the great living novelists are Frenchmen.

Mr. Clemens asks what the French sensualists can possibly teach the great American people about novel writing or morality? Well, it would not seriously hurt the art of the classic author of “Puddin’ Head Wilson” to study Daudet, De Maupassant, Hugo and George Sand, whatever it might do to his morals. Mark Twain is a humorist of a kind. His humor is always rather broad, so broad that the polite world can justly call it coarse. He is not a reader nor a thinker nor a man who loves art of any kind. He is a clever Yankee who has made a “good thing” out of writing. He has been published in the North American Review and in the Century, but he is not and never will be a part of literature. The association and companionship of cultured men has given Mark Twain a sort of professional veneer, but it could not give him fine instincts or nice discriminations or elevated tastes. His works are pure and suitable for children, just as the work of most shallow and mediocre fellows. House dogs and donkeys make the most harmless and chaste companions for young innocence in the world. Mark Twain’s humor is of the kind that teamsters use in bantering with each other, and his laugh is the gruff “haw-haw” of the backwoodsman. He is still the rough, awkward, good-natured boy who swore at the deck hands on the river steamer and chewed uncured tobacco when he was three years old. Thoroughly likeable as a good fellow, but impossible as a man of letters. It is an unfortunate feature of American literature that a hostler with some natural cleverness and a great deal of assertion receives the same recognition as a standard American author that a man like Lowell does. The French academy is a good thing after all. It at least divides the sheep from the goats and gives a sheep the consolation of knowing that he is a sheep.

It is rather a pity that Paul Bourget should have written “Outre Mer,” thoroughly creditable book though it is. Mr. Bourget is a novelist, and he should not content himself with being an essayist, there are far too many of them in the world already. He can develop strong characters, invent strong situations, he can write the truth and he should not drift into penning opinions and platitudes. When God has made a man a creator, it is a great mistake for him to turn critic. It is rather an insult to God and certainly a very great wrong to man.

Willa Cather on Mark Twain. Originally published in Nebraska State Journal, May 5, 1895

 

 

“Walt Whitman” — Willa Cather

“Walt Whitman” by Willa Cather

Speaking of monuments reminds one that there is more talk about a monument to Walt Whitman, “the good, gray poet.” Just why the adjective good is always applied to Whitman it is difficult to discover, probably because people who could not understand him at all took it for granted that he meant well. If ever there was a poet who had no literary ethics at all beyond those of nature, it was he. He was neither good nor bad, any more than are the animals he continually admired and envied. He was a poet without an exclusive sense of the poetic, a man without the finer discriminations, enjoying everything with the unreasoning enthusiasm of a boy. He was the poet of the dung hill as well as of the mountains, which is admirable in theory but excruciating in verse. In the same paragraph he informs you that, “The pure contralto sings in the organ loft,” and that “The malformed limbs are tied to the table, what is removed drop horribly into a pail.” No branch of surgery is poetic, and that hopelessly prosaic word “pail” would kill a whole volume of sonnets. Whitman’s poems are reckless rhapsodies over creation in general, some times sublime, some times ridiculous. He declares that the ocean with its “imperious waves, commanding” is beautiful, and that the fly-specks on the walls are also beautiful. Such catholic taste may go in science, but in poetry their results are sad. The poet’s task is usually to select the poetic. Whitman never bothers to do that, he takes everything in the universe from fly-specks to the fixed stars. His “Leaves of Grass” is a sort of dictionary of the English language, and in it is the name of everything in creation set down with great reverence but without any particular connection.

But however ridiculous Whitman may be there is a primitive elemental force about him. He is so full of hardiness and of the joy of life. He looks at all nature in the delighted, admiring way in which the old Greeks and the primitive poets did. He exults so in the red blood in his body and the strength in his arms. He has such a passion for the warmth and dignity of all that is natural. He has no code but to be  natural, a code that this complex world has so long outgrown. He is sensual, not after the manner of Swinbourne and Gautier, who are always seeking for perverted and bizarre effects on the senses, but in the frank fashion of the old barbarians who ate and slept and married and smacked their lips over the mead horn. He is rigidly limited to the physical, things that quicken his pulses, please his eyes or delight his nostrils. There is an element of poetry in all this, but it is by no means the highest. If a joyous elephant should break forth into song, his lay would probably be very much like Whitman’s famous “song of myself.” It would have just about as much delicacy and deftness and discriminations. He says:

“I think I could turn and live with the animals. They are so placid and self-contained, I stand and look at them long and long. They do not sweat and whine about their condition. They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins. They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God. Not one is dissatisfied nor not one is demented with the mania of many things. Not one kneels to another nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago. Not one is respectable or unhappy, over the whole earth.” And that is not irony on nature, he means just that, life meant no more to him. He accepted the world just as it is and glorified it, the seemly and unseemly, the good and the bad. He had no conception of a difference in people or in things. All men had bodies and were alike to him, one about as good as another. To live was to fulfil all natural laws and impulses. To be comfortable was to be happy. To be happy was the ultimatum. He did not realize the existence of a conscience or a responsibility. He had no more thought of good or evil than the folks in Kipling’s Jungle book.

And yet there is an undeniable charm about this optimistic vagabond who is made so happy by the warm sunshine and the smell of spring fields. A sort of good fellowship and whole-heartedness in every line he wrote. His veneration for things physical and material, for all that is in water or air or land, is so real that as you read him you think for the moment that you would rather like to live so if you could. For the time you half believe that a sound body and a strong arm are the greatest things in the world. Perhaps no book shows so much  as “Leaves of Grass” that keen senses do not make a poet. When you read it you realize how spirited a thing poetry really is and how great a part spiritual perceptions play in apparently sensuous verse, if only to select the beautiful from the gross.

Nebraska State Journal, January 19, 1896

 

Drywood — Les Blank

“Our April Letter” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

This is April again. Roller skates rain slowly down the street
Your voice far away on the phone
Once I would have jumped like a clown through a hoop—
but
“Then the area of infection has increased? …oh …What can I expect after all—I’ve had worse shocks.
Anyhow, I know and that’s something.” (Like hell it is, but it’s what you say to an X-ray doctor.)
Then the past whispering faint now on another phone:
“Is there any change?”
“Little or no change”
“I see”
The roller skates rain down the streets,
The black cars shine between the leaves,
Your voice far away:
“I am going with my daughter to the country. My husband left today. . . No he knows nothing.”
“Good”.
I have asked a lot of my emotions—one hundred and twenty stories, The price was high, right up with Kipling, because there was one little drop of something not blood, not a tear, not my seed, but me more intimately than these, in every story, it was the extra I had. Now it has gone and I am just like you now.
Once the phial was full—here is the bottle it came in.
Hold on there’s a drop left there. . . No, it was just the way the light fell
But your voice on the telephone. If I hadn’t abused words so what you said might have meant something.
But one hundred and twenty stories
April evening spreads over everything, the purple blur left by a child who has used the whole paint-box.

“Our April Letter” is from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Notebooks.

 

“The Easter Hare” and “The Easter Hare Family” by Margaret Arndt

“The Easter Hare”  by Margaret Arndt

It is curious how little children of one country know about the lives and interests of the children of another. Perhaps if English people would send their children over to Germany, instead of their journalists, singers, etc., the danger of an International war would be lessened. The children would be sure to fall in love with Germany; for it is the land above all others that appeals to children. Women are said to come first in America, children are certainly the first consideration in Germany. Froebel’s motto: “Come let us live with our children,” is nowhere better carried out.

A little English girl, named Patsie, came over to visit her German friends, Gretel and Barbara, shortly before Easter this year; and she was much surprised to find all the shop-windows filled with hares; hares made of chocolate, toy hares, hares with fine red coats on, hares trundling wheelbarrows or carrying baskets full of Easter eggs. Moreover there was no end to the picture post cards representing the hare in various costumes, and in some connection with Easter eggs. One of these post cards represented a hare crawling out of a large broken egg just like a chicken.

Patsie asked her little friends eagerly what this all meant.

“Who is the Hare?” she said. “I do so want to know all about him.”

“Why, of course, it is the Easter Hare,” they replied.

“Is it possible that you have not heard of him? O, you poor English children! Why, he brings us the eggs on Easter Sunday morning!” said Gretel.

“O don’t you know,” said Barbara, “he hides them in the garden, unless it rains or is very wet; then we have to stay in our bedrooms for fear of frightening him, and he lays them downstairs in the dining-room or drawing-room. However, this has only happened once since I was born, and I am nine years old; it mustbe always fine at Easter.”

“We have to let all the blinds down before he will come into our garden, he is so dreadfully nervous,” said Gretel. “Then he hides the eggs in the most unexpected places, we have to hunt and hunt a long time before we have found them all. Last year we discovered an egg some weeks afterwards; luckily it was a glass one filled with sweeties; for if it had been of chocolate, we could not have eaten it, after it had lain on the damp mould, where the snails and worms would have crawled over it. Some of the eggs are made of chocolate or marzipan or sugar, and some are real eggs coloured blue or red or brown, or even sometimes with pictures on them.”

“We had two dear little baskets with dollies in them, and a big Easter Hare made of gingerbread, as well as the eggs this year,” said Barbara. “We hunt and hunt in every corner of the garden, and then we divide our treasures afterwards on two plates, so that is quite fair.”

“You are lucky children, why does not the Hare come to England?” said Patsie. “I am sure little English children would appreciate him too!” Continue reading ““The Easter Hare” and “The Easter Hare Family” by Margaret Arndt”

RIP Chinua Achebe

Achebe

RIP Chinua Achebe, 1930-2013

Nigerian author Chinua Achebe died today at the age 82.

I will never forget the first time I read Things Fall Apart, Achebe’s famous novel that mixes elements of magical realism and postcolonial criticism into the story of brave, stubborn Okonkwo, a killer, an exile, a man too big for his world. I was a high school senior and the book was part of an AP Literature reading list. I found a tattered copy in my classroom library, and compelled by the cover and the book’s name (what a great name!) and the author’s name, I read it. I devoured it. I absorbed it. I read it again.

And I stole the book of course.

And then years later, a student of mine stole it from me, which is as it should be.

I used Things Fall Apart for years in the classroom, reading it aloud with my classes in the inner-city school where I taught. Few of my students were avid readers, especially the angry young boys, who often seemed to show up merely to escape the violent streets they roamed or the chaos at home. But they liked Things Fall Apart and they loved Okonkwo and they understood him, his anger, his pride, his fury. Over the years my class set experienced that special kind of attrition all well-loved books face: The books disappeared, secreted into knapsacks and lockers, loaned to students in other classes. Or they fell apart, fittingly, the spines cracked, the glue brittle and crumbling, the pages torn. This is love, of course.

Achebe was always thrust into a strange position. He had to defend writing in English, for example, and discourse about Things Fall Apart often dwells too much on the book’s final chapters, where British colonials begin systemically decimating traditional Igbo culture. It’s not that that final section isn’t important or meaningful to the book, but there’s so much more there—so much is preserved—and shared—of Igbo culture in the book’s first three quarters. (Achebe’s scathing attack on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness often overshadows his fiction).

If we’re being honest though, let’s admit that what makes Things Fall Apart a great work of literature, a strange, strong work of literature, isn’t merely its anthropological or folkloric or political values. It’s not a book we read again and again because of its allegorical values or its maddening critique of colonialism. The reason that we continue to read and reread Things Fall Apart is that it’s an excellent novel, an aesthetic achievement, a work that produces its own anxieties, that captures terror and pity and humanity. So much humanity.

Michael Kimball Talks to Biblioklept About Writing Life Stories on Postcards

Michael Kimball’s latest book Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (On a Postcard) had its genesis in a performance piece at the Transmodern Performance Festival a few years back: Michael interviewed people for a few minutes and then crammed their biographies onto postcards. The project soon evolved into a blog, where Michael interviewed hundreds of people of all ages from around the world. The work is now collected in a book from Mud Luscious Press that features over fifty of the biographies, including the life stories of several contemporary writers, one dead U.S. President, a rooster, a T-shirt, a few cats, Edgar Allan Poe, and Michael himself.

In addition to Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (On a Postcard), Michael is the author of Big Ray, Us, Dear Everybody, and The Way the Family Got Away. He still holds the Meryl S. Colt Elementary School record for the 600-yard dash. Check out his website.

Michael was kind enough to talk to me about this latest book over a series of emails.

Kimball final cover copy

Biblioklept: What’s the hardest thing about writing someone’s life story on a postcard?

Michael Kimball: There are difficult things at different stages of the process. The first difficult thing is asking the right questions for the particular participant. The second difficult thing is being representative when condensing what I’ve been told. The third difficult thing is writing small enough to squeeze six hundred words or so onto a single postcard.

Biblioklept: When you started the project, it was a planned performance piece of sorts, but your description of it at the beginning of the book makes it seem rather off-the-cuff. Did you have a plan for the questions you would ask? How did the questions change as the project progressed?

MK: That first performance was definitely off-the-cuff. I had no idea what I was going to ask people and how I was going to write their life stories on a postcard. I mostly started with something pretty open-ended and then asked more specific questions about whatever I was told. As the project progressed, I developed a set of starter questions that elicited basic information and then asked more specific questions from there. Basically, I considered whatever I was being told to be important and then asked more questions about it.

Biblioklept: You interviewed people by email, in phone, in person — how did how you were doing the interview affect the process? Did you prefer one way over the other?

MK: I preferred the in-person interviews. There was a different kind of intimacy with those and there are a bunch of people I interviewed that way who are now friends. Of course, that wasn’t practical for lots of the interviews, since most people lived so far away from me. And the method did influence the process. With the phone interview and in-person interviews I was taking notes as fast as I could, but that was never fast enough. With the email interviews, it was easier for people to give me more detailed answers. Also, since I had the full text of their answers, I could use more of their language.

MKWYLS(oap)Biblioklept: Did you prefer to use as much of the subject’s language as possible? Maybe I’m getting into what you described as “the second difficult thing” — how much of yourself do you see in the pieces? I think there’s clearly a voice, a tone that unifies the pieces . . . I’m curious how much of the process was crafting or editing or revising or repurposing the subject’s original language…

MK: I tried to use the participant’s language wherever I thought it gave some sense of the person. At times, I thought of like using third-person close narration. Besides that, I was trying to be as objective as possible and I think that gave the life stories a certain consistency of tone. Clearly, I tend to write sentences a certain way, but beyond that I tried to keep myself out of it.

Biblioklept: What about pieces like “Chair” or “T-Shirt” — how did they come about?

MK: The first non-person one I wrote was Red Delicious Apple, which popped into my head almost fully formed, which happened because I used to almost always have apples on my desk, which just meant that I spent a lot of time with apples. But writing Red Delicious Apple opened up a lot of possibilities and so T-Shirt is written about my favorite t-shirt and Chair was written about a chair I once broke. And I have a great affection for animals, so I loved writing ones like Moose the Cat, Sammy the Dog, and Abby the Horse.

Biblioklept: You wrote over three hundred postcards. How did you choose which ones you would include in the book?

MK: The book would have been over seven hundred pages long if I had included all the postcard life stories, but it was difficult leaving any of them out. So, ultimately, it came down to trying to showing the range of the postcard life stories, which is why nearly every one I wrote about a non-human made it into the book.

Biblioklept: How did the Poe biography come about?

MK: That was for Gigantic’s Gigantic America issue. They asked me to write one of the great American bios that they printed on special card inserts and I suggested Poe, who had just had some anniversary of his life or his death.

Biblioklept: Several pieces in Life Story are about contemporary writers. Was writing about these writers different than writing about anyone else in the collection?

MK: Early on, it was other writers who seemed particularly keen on the project — Adam Robinson, Karen Lillis, Elizabeth Ellen, Elizabeth Crane, Blake Butler, etc. I approached every postcard life story the same way, but then let the participant tell me where they wanted to take it. I tried to ask questions that followed their answers.

Biblioklept: I imagine most people who asked to participate in the project were forthcoming with their answers. I’m curious though if you noticed any topics that people avoided or glossed over or maybe required additional prodding from you. Did you ever feel like your part of the interviewing process pushed your subject into uncomfortable territory?

MK: I didn’t realize it until later, but part of what made the project work was that people came to me wanting to tell their life story (rather than me asking them if they wanted it told). Still, there were a few times that people were reluctant to say things. There was one woman who was reluctant to talk about her husband and I couldn’t figure out why, but then they divorced not long after that. And there was one man who didn’t want to talk about his mother because she was really sick. But usually if there was reluctance, it was some kind of abuse or some other horrible thing that had happened to the person. In fact, I was reluctant to talk about the abuse I grew up with in my own postcard life story when it was initially written. In general, I tried to ask the difficult question, but then let the participant decide whether they wanted to answer and how much they wanted to tell me. And with particularly difficult life stories, I always showed the participant what I wrote and asked them if they were OK with it being public before I ever put their postcard life story out into the world.

Biblioklept: Talking about one’s own life clearly has some kind of therapeutic value. Do you think reading about one’s own life carries a similar value?

MK: Since starting the project, I’ve learned there are quite a few therapeutic techniques that involve narrative and telling (or retelling) one’s life story. Part of that process is hearing one’s life story told back or reading about one’s own life. There can be something useful in that perspective and there can be something reassuring about having a manageable version of one’s life story.

Biblioklept: What are you working on now?

MK: I’m very slowly working on two different novels and thinking about a third. I’m not sure if I’ll ever finish any of them.

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

MK: I used to steal so many books, especially when I didn’t have the money to keep pace with my reading appetite and I couldn’t find the things I wanted to read in the library. I’ve tried to make up for that by giving away lots of books these days. I stole so many books that I’m not sure I can remember a specific instance. But it was always kind of thrilling and it seemed to make reading all the more exciting. Sometimes, if I didn’t like a book I would sneak it back into the bookstore.

See The Corner, David Simon’s Dress Rehearsal for The Wire

Continue reading “See The Corner, David Simon’s Dress Rehearsal for The Wire”

Still Points North (Book Acquired, 3.02.2013)

20130304-154858.jpg

Still Points North is Leigh Newman’s new memoir about growing up in Alaska. Publisher Random House’s blurb:

Part adventure story, part love story, part homecoming, Still Points North is a page-turning memoir that explores the extremes of belonging and exile, and the difference between how to survive and knowing how to truly live.

Growing up in the wilds of Alaska, seven-year-old Leigh Newman spent her time landing silver salmon, hiking glaciers, and flying in a single-prop plane. But her life split in two when her parents unexpectedly divorced, requiring her to spend summers on the tundra with her “Great Alaskan” father and the school year in Baltimore with her more urbane mother.

Navigating the fraught terrain of her family’s unraveling, Newman did what any outdoorsman would do: She adapted. With her father she fished remote rivers, hunted caribou, and packed her own shotgun shells. With her mother she memorized the names of antique furniture, composed proper bread-and-butter notes, and studied Latin poetry at a private girl’s school. Charting her way through these two very different worlds, Newman learned to never get attached to people or places, and to leave others before they left her. As an adult, she explored the most distant reaches of the globe as a travel writer, yet had difficulty navigating the far more foreign landscape of love and marriage.

In vivid, astonishing prose, Newman reveals how a child torn between two homes becomes a woman who both fears and idealizes connection, how a need for independence can morph into isolation, and how even the most guarded heart can still long for understanding. Still Points North is a love letter to an unconventional Alaskan childhood of endurance and affection, one that teaches us that no matter where you go in life, the truest tests of courage are the chances you take, not with bears and blizzards, but with other people.

 

 

New Books from Akashic (Books Acquired, 2.15.2013)

A passel of unsolicited reader copies arrived in the middle of February, including a trio of strange birds from Akashic Books. Preston L. Allen’s Every Boy Should Have a Man seems especially (and wonderfully) weird. First, there’s that title, which is, you know, strange, and then the blurb:

20130224-140946.jpgA riveting, poignant satire of societal ills, with an added dose of fantasy, Every Boy Should Have a Man takes place in a post-human world where creatures called oafs keep humanlike “mans” as beloved pets. One day, a poor boy oaf brings home a man whom he hides under his bed in the hopes his parents won’t find out. When the man is discovered, the boy admits it is not his—but the boy is no delinquent. Despite the accusations being hurled at him, he’s telling the truth when he says he found the man aimlessly wandering in the bramble. Nevertheless, he must return the man to his rightful owner. But when the heartbroken boy comes home from school one afternoon, he finds wrapped up in red ribbon a female man with a note around her neck: Every boy should have a man. You’re a fine son. Love, Dad.

Thus begins Every Boy Should Have a Man, Preston L. Allen’s picaresque journey into uncharted territory in earth, sky, and firmament. With echoes of Margaret Atwood and Jack and the Beanstalk, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Octavia Butler’s Kindred, it traces the story of the boy and his three “mans,” Brown Skin who is not his, the tragic Red Sleeves who has no voice, and her quick-witted daughter Red Locks whose epic journey takes her from the backbreaking drudgery of the mines to the perils of the battlefield to the savagery of cannibalism.

Oafs and mans each gain insight and understanding into one another’s worlds, and the worlds that touch theirs—ultimately showing that oafs and mans alike share a common “humanity.” Filled with surprising twists and turns, the novel is in part a morality tale that takes on many of today’s issues including poverty, the environment, sexism, racism, war, and religion, all in lighthearted King James prose.

Seems to have shades of Fantastic Planet — but “in lighthearted King James prose”!

Next up, The Roving Tree, the first novel from Elsi Augustave, which seems like it might be happily at home on a contemporary postcolonial studies syllabus:

20130224-141000.jpgElsie Augustave’s debut novel, The Roving Tree, explores multiple themes: separation and loss, rootlessness, the impact of class privilege and color consciousness, and the search for cultural identity. The central character, Iris Odys, is the offspring of Hagathe, a Haitian maid, and Brahami, a French-educated mulatto father who cares little about his child.

Hagathe, who had always dreamt of a better life for her child, is presented with the perfect opportunity when Iris is five years old. Adopted by a white American couple, an anthropologist and art gallery owner, Iris is transported from her tiny remote Haitian village, Monn Neg, to an American suburb.

The Roving Tree illuminates how imperfectly assimilated adoptees struggle to remember their original voices and recapture their personal histories and cultural legacy. Set between two worlds, suburban America and Haiti under the oppressive regime of Papa Doc’s Tanton Macoutes, the novel offers a unique literary glimpse into the deeply entrenched class discrimination and political repression of Haiti during the Duvalier era, along with the subtle but nonetheless dangerous effects of American racism.

Told from beyond the grave, Iris seamlessly shares her poignant and pivotal life experiences. The Roving Tree, underscored by the spiritual wisdom of Haitian griots, offers insightful revelations of the importance of significant relationships with family and friends. Years later, we see how these elements are transformative to Iris’s intense love affair, and her personal and professional growth. Universal truths resonate beyond the pages of this work.

Also on the colonial-historical tip: Anthony C. Winkler’s The Family Mansion:

20130224-141035.jpgThe Family Mansion is a historical novel that tells the story of Hartley Fudges, whose personal destiny unfolds against the backdrop of 19th-century British culture, a time when English society was based upon the strictest subordination and stratification of the classes. As the second son of a hereditary duke and his father’s favorite, Hartley, under different circumstances, might have inherited the inside track to his father’s estate and titles. But the English law of succession was rigidly dictated by the principle of male primogeniture, with all the property, assets, titles, and debts devolving to the firstborn son and his issue, leaving nothing for the other sons.

Like many second sons, Hartley decides to migrate to Jamaica at the age of twenty-three. This at first seems sensible: in the early 1800s Jamaica was far and away the richest and most opulent of all the crown colonies, and the single greatest producer of sugar in the world. But for all its fabulous wealth, Jamaica was a difficult and inhospitable place for an immigrant. The mortality rate for new immigrants was over 50% for the first year of residence. Some immigrant groups fared even worse. The island’s white population that ran the lucrative sugarcane industry was outnumbered 10-to-1 by the largely enslaved black population. Slave revolts were common with brutal reprisals such as the decapitation of ringleaders and nailing the severed heads to trees.

The complex saga of Hartley’s life is revealed in vivid scenes that depict the vicissitudes of 19th-century English and Jamaican societies. Aside from violent slave revolts, newcomers had to survive the nemesis of the white man in the tropics—namely, yellow fever. With Hartley’s point of view as its primary focus, the narrative transports readers to exotic lands, simultaneously exploring the brutality of England’s slavery-based colonization.

Akashic, a label I was ignorant of up until now, seems to be publishing some pretty cool stuff.

 

“Nam-Bok the Unveracious” — Jack London

“Nam-Bok the Unveracious” by Jack London

“A Bidarka, is it not so! Look! a bidarka, and one man who drives clumsily with a paddle!”

Old Bask-Wah-Wan rose to her knees, trembling with weakness and eagerness, and gazed out over the sea.

“Nam-Bok was ever clumsy at the paddle,” she maundered reminiscently, shading the sun from her eyes and staring across the silver-spilled water. “Nam-Bok was ever clumsy. I remember….”

But the women and children laughed loudly, and there was a gentle mockery in their laughter, and her voice dwindled till her lips moved without sound.

Koogah lifted his grizzled head from his bone-carving and followed the path of her eyes. Except when wide yawns took it off its course, a bidarka was heading in for the beach. Its occupant was paddling with more strength than dexterity, and made his approach along the zigzag line of most resistance. Koogah’s head dropped to his work again, and on the ivory tusk between his knees he scratched the dorsal fin of a fish the like of which never swam in the sea.

“It is doubtless the man from the next village,” he said finally, “come to consult with me about the marking of things on bone. And the man is a clumsy man. He will never know how.”

“It is Nam-Bok,” old Bask-Wah-Wan repeated. “Should I not know my son!” she demanded shrilly. “I say, and I say again, it is Nam-Bok.”

“And so thou hast said these many summers,” one of the women chided softly. “Ever when the ice passed out of the sea hast thou sat and watched through the long day, saying at each chance canoe, ‘This is Nam-Bok.’ Nam-Bok is dead, O Bask-Wah-Wan, and the dead do not come back. It cannot be that the dead come back.”

“Nam-Bok!” the old woman cried, so loud and clear that the whole village was startled and looked at her. Continue reading ““Nam-Bok the Unveracious” — Jack London”

“The drama’s done” (Moby-Dick)

The drama’s done. Why then here does any one step forth?—Because one did survive the wreck.

It so chanced, that after the Parsee’s disappearance, I was he whom the Fates ordained to take the place of Ahab’s bowsman, when that bowsman assumed the vacant post; the same, who, when on the last day the three men were tossed from out of the rocking boat, was dropped astern. So, floating on the margin of the ensuing scene, and in full sight of it, when the halfspent suction of the sunk ship reached me, I was then, but slowly, drawn towards the closing vortex. When I reached it, it had subsided to a creamy pool. Round and round, then, and ever contracting towards the button-like black bubble at the axis of that slowly wheeling circle, like another Ixion I did revolve. Till, gaining that vital centre, the black bubble upward burst; and now, liberated by reason of its cunning spring, and, owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force, the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side. Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirgelike main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks. On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.

The untitled epilogue to Melville’s Moby-Dick, which I’ve always thought of by its epigraph from Job, “And I Only Am Escaped Alone to Tell Thee.”

I’ve enjoyed citing these extracts through this reading of Moby-Dick.

 

Teju Cole on America’s Reader in Chief

Read Teju Cole’s essay “A Reader’s War,” which tries to square Obama’s reputation as a man “widely read in philosophy, literature, and history” with the White House’s policies of drone warfare. From the essay:

How on earth did this happen to the reader in chief? What became of literature’s vaunted power to inspire empathy? Why was the candidate Obama, in word and in deed, so radically different from the President he became? In Andrei Tarkovsky’s eerie 1979 masterpiece, “Stalker,” the landscape called the Zona has the power to grant people’s deepest wishes, but it can also derange those who traverse it. I wonder if the Presidency is like that: a psychoactive landscape that can madden whomever walks into it, be he inarticulate and incurious, or literary and cosmopolitan.

“T.S. Eliot” — Ezra Pound

“T.S. Eliot” by Ezra Pound (from Instigations)

Il n’y a de livres que ceux où un écrivain s’est raconté lui-même en racontant les mœurs de ses contemporains—leurs rêves, leurs vanités, leurs amours, et leurs folies.— Remy de Gourmont.

De Gourmont uses this sentence in writing of the incontestable superiority of “Madame Bovary,” “L’Éducation Sentimentale” and “Bouvard et Pécuchet” to “Salammbô” and “La Tentation de St. Antoine.” A casual thought convinces one that it is true for all prose. Is it true also for poetry? One may give latitude to the interpretation of rêves; the gross public would have the poet write little else, but De Gourmont keeps a proportion. The vision should have its place in due setting if we are to believe its reality.

The few poems which Mr. Eliot has given us maintain this proportion, as they maintain other proportions of art. After much contemporary work that is merely factitious, much that is good in intention but impotently unfinished and incomplete; much whose flaws are due to sheer ignorance which a year’s study or thought might have remedied, it is a comfort to come upon complete art, naïve despite its intellectual subtlety, lacking all pretense.

It is quite safe to compare Mr. Eliot’s work with anything written in French, English or American since the death of Jules Laforgue. The reader will find nothing better, and he will be extremely fortunate if he finds much half as good.

The necessity, or at least the advisability of comparing English or American work with French work is not readily granted by the usual English or American writer. If you suggest it, the Englishman answers that he has not thought about it—he does not see why he should bother himself about what goes on south of the channel; the American replies by stating that you are “no longer American.” This is the bitterest jibe in his vocabulary. The net result is that it is extremely difficult to read one’s contemporaries. After a time one tires of “promise.” Continue reading ““T.S. Eliot” — Ezra Pound”

Gertrude Stein on Football

In a 1934 radio interview, Gertrude Stein talks American football:

INTERVIEWER: You saw the Yale-Dartmouth game a week ago Saturday didn’t you? Did you understand that in the American way or the football way or how?

STEIN: IN the American way. The thing that interested me was that the Modern American in his movements and his actions in a football game so resembled the red Indian dance and it proves that the physical country that made the one made the other and that the red Indian is still with us. They just put their heads down solemnly together and then double over, while on the sidelines the substitutes move in a jiggly way just like Indians. Then they all get down on all fours just like Indians.

INTERVIEWER: But those jiggles are just warming-up exercises.

STEIN: It doesn’t make any difference what they are doing it for, they are just doing it, like the way the Indian jiggles in the Indian dance and then there is that little brown ball they all bend down and worship.

INTERVIEWER: But the ideas in that is to get the ball across the goal line.

STEIN: But don’t you suppose I know that, and don’t you suppose the Indians had just as much reason and enjoyed their dancing just as much?

“Cinema Is a Foreign Language” — Leos Carax

Hello, I’m Leos Carax, director of foreign-language films. I’ve been making foreign-language films my whole life. Foreign-language films are made all over the world, of course, except in America. In America, they only make non-foreign-language films. Foreign-language films are very hard to make, obviously, because you have to invent a foreign language instead of using the usual language. But the truth is, cinema is a foreign language, a language created for those who need to travel to the other side of life. Good night.

Director Leos Carax accepts his award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association for best-foreign language film for Holy Motors. (Here’s my review of Holy Motors, by the way).