John Ashbery passed away on September 3 at the age of 90. I can’t imagine him heeding Dylan Thomas’s call to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
At the 2012 Olympic Games in London, every country sent at least one woman competitor. An unprecedented event. In Rio de Janeiro last year, 45% of the 11,000 competing athletes were women. But more than 120 years ago, before Serena and Venus Williams, Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles were household names, the Olympic Games prohibited women’s involvement. There just wasn’t any space for women in the collective “public sphere.”
A book is a very welcome Christmas gift at our house. More even than a piece of clothing or jewelry, the selection itself carries with it the special intimacy of what one specific person thinks another ought to read. So, last Christmas, when my daughter, Austin, presented my wife and me with a large, wrapped bundle of volumes we were eager.
This week, Robert M. Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values, died after a period of failing health. Two years ago, my friend, Darryl, died in a motorcycle accident, leaving behind his wife and four kids. At the funeral, I couldn’t find a connection between his still body and the vibrant, wonderful person I knew. That wasn’t Darryl, lying there. Intellectually, I knew, but emotionally, I couldn’t understand. He’s buried in Austin, wearing his mechanic’s work shirt and baseball cap, laid to rest as he lived. I’d like to think Pirsig will be sent off in similar fashion.
When Charles Dickens invited guests over for dinner, it was his tendency to take them on a little pre-dinner stroll. Some four hours later, the famished group returned back to his home for their later-than-planned meal. The ‘Sketches by Boz’ author was used to walking hours at a time. He sketched life by traversing it, gathering up material through close inspection of daily encounters.
I grew up in Dallas, and the joke my father always used to tell about the city was this: What’s the difference between yogurt and Dallas? Yogurt is the one with the live culture. He had lived in New York for a time after the war, hand picked by composer Richard Rodgers to sing in his Broadway musical South Pacific, so he knew a thing or two about a more expansively cultured life.
Everyone knows writers are depressed. As a species we are invariably portrayed as near suicidal heavy drinkers and odd, chronic overthinkers who tug at our hair, howl at the moon, and cover ourselves in proverbial ashes. The world of literary respect seems to honor this heritage by giving critical consideration and praise only to authors who possess a flair for the tragic, and who keep humanity’s dying ember held on their tongues. Happy writing is relegated to the likes of the commercially packaged, pastel drenched Nicholas Sparks or, at best, the demure Jane Austen who insists on a neat and satisfying ending. We all want our light romances to end well, but the preponderance of respected literature is dealt a much heavier hand; serious literature must be serious.
“How strange and unpredictable life is! How little there is between happiness and misery,” remarks Madame Loisel, the tragic heroine of Guy de Maupassant’s masterful short story “The Necklace.” In this—perhaps trite—line by Maupassant, the rich legacy left by French writers is subtlety revealed. If the British gave us valuable moral lessons, and the Russians instructed us to deconstruct the human soul, what did the French teach us? Simple: to live. Ardently, eloquently, poetically. Never passively. The French taught us to live, perhaps en rose, perhaps en blanc et bleue, but live colorfully nonetheless. In honor of Bastille Day, here are my favorite French stories about living with desire.
Is there an American novel that invites more haters than To Kill a Mockingbird? Admit it: you judge someone who names it as his or her favorite novel of all time. If something is wildly beloved by the masses, it must be middle-brow, sentimental crap at best, right? That was my official position on Harper Lee’s classic bestseller for many years—until recently, when a spunky group of students reminded me of its greatness.
As a follow-up to my piece on an orange-zest-faced demagogue of our time, I share some timely examples from Robert Penn Warren’s 1947 political classic All the King’s Men. In light of this most recent election and its theatrics, it seems the old adage “The pen is mightier than the sword” can be amended to “The rabble-rouse is mightier than the reasoned.”
Many of us define ourselves by our jobs and interests, our friends and family, and our tastes in music, movies, or books. What we don’t think about is what lies just outside our own world, or perhaps just as importantly, what lies within our world that we haven’t noticed. Returning to old ideas, either through rereading or reading translated books, helps us define our past and present selves.
The world is hungry for magic. There is an enchantment in every recorded culture with the baffling and the unexplainable, an enduring search for whatever underlying hoodoo jives with and rearranges predictable existences. Well recorded responses to mysticism and the uncertain have ranged from stonings to developing cults to writing bestselling novels, but moderate responses to what we do not understand appear to be limited, or to not exist at all. In the realm of literature, what is confusing and, often, strange is bread and butter—the needed fodder for ideological exchange, for the development of assumption shattering introspection.
If we are what we read, shouldn’t we ponder about our reading diet, how do we choose our authors, how do stories become our own? Recently, I’ve been wondering about books, about how they get to our hands, how do we choose them… or do they choose us? In the long process that starts with a voice and a story to tell, the editor becomes a key to the door to an author’s world. That is precisely why Pepitas de Calabaza, a Spanish grassroots editorial, is so important and to have the opportunity to glance into their worlds is nothing short than a gift.
Cosmic Horror. It’s a phrase I expect to find written in fat, drippy letters on the cover of an EC comic book from the 1950’s. Or one of the empty promises hurled at the audience in the previews for what will prove to be a predictably ordinary 1940’s horror film: Fiendish Tortures!…Ghastly Terrors!!…Cosmic Horror!!!
In July, Charles Dee Mitchell wrote an excellent article on this blog entitled “Enough with the Tomes: 4 Authors to Read in an Afternoon.” However, despite its excellent recommendations, the reverse position deserves an ardent defense.
Work, family, movies and miles of running. Work, friends, shows and gallons of craft beer. Work, travels, parties and a tones of wasted time online. In half a year there is room for plenty of things and probably not enough for all those goals you had in mind for the New Year. Although, when you leave January behind, does this really matter?
In this world of incessant breaking news, emails, texts and notifications of every kind it is hard to believe that the passing of E L Doctorow could draw much attention to his figure. Let alone to his books. We shouldn’t fool ourselves.
The website Vulture announced last May that we are coming up on a year of very long novels. In addition to their intimidating page counts, these novels mentioned in the Vulture article have something else in common. I will almost certainly not be reading them.
Some of us in the WD family were in Madrid during the Feria del Libro (the World biggest Book Fair in Spanish) and lived, ate, drank and mainly talked literature for a couple of days. Paraphrasing the old ads of a popular beer, we say: books are good for you. And for everybody. Here is why.
Reading; like listening to music, watching a movie, amusing yourself with a paint or any other way to enjoy art, is a personal experience, so unique to us, as unique we are as individuals; similar in many ways, but never the exact same.
Our friend Cinthya Salinas, aka Eloquent Gal, has prepared a very thoughtful list of books about love. For all of you that love someone, or would like to love someone, or would like to be loved by someone, or would prefer to not to love someone, or… Well, you get the idea.
Once there was a kid in a remote provincial town in a forgotten corner of Spain, which on its own, was a forgotten country at the time. And the kid came across with a book and read its first line “Many years later, in front of the firing squad, colonel Aureliano Buendía would remember that distant afternoon his father took him to see ice.”
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