Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Just Kids: some thoughts on Patti Smith

I was interested in reading Just Kids when I read the earliest review, then, a little more so after the book won the National Book Award in nonfiction. And then even more so, when the title did not appear on the New York Times list of 50 notable nonfiction books of the year, and a tad more, when it did not appear on Time magazine’s list of the ten best works of nonfiction of 2010.

I wanted to know why one group of judges loved it and others ignored it, or seemed to. Of course, award winners are not always the books that are loved, sometimes they are just hated the least, collectively speaking, by a panel of readers. As William Gass once said of the Pulitzer: “ . . .the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses; the prize is simply not to work of the first rank, rarely even to the second."

First, I should say that I found the book compelling: I read it over a couple days. But what was compelling about it? I wonder if the answer to that says more about me, or about the book? I like the portrait of the time and place. The time is almost mine, just as Smith herself just missed the times of some of the more glamorous names of the era. The place, New York, was never mine, yet I went West the way others of Smith’s moment flocked eastward.

I liked how utterly nonmaterialistic they (she and Robert Mapplethorpe) were. And how that didn’t really matter because they had their eyes on a higher prize. Where I found it most interesting was how little they knew, either of them, what that higher prize might be (more on this later).

Before I go any farther it occurs to me that I should describe what the book is: a memoir of a friendship between Smith and Mapplethorpe in the sixties in New York, before they became the counter-cultural icons (which basically turns out to be merely cultural [no counter]): Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. The book is supposed to be a tribute to that friendship, a kind of fulfillment of a deathbed promise she made to Mapplethorpe, who died young in 1988. As such, it does not attempt to be a complete memoir—much more a coming of age story.

The odd thing about the book as a memoir of a friendship is that there was a long gap in the story between the time both characters found their fame and when Mapplethorpe dies. I have to say that I somewhat understood this: friendships from that intense era of life, the starting out, retain a vitality and disproportion that seems impervious to time and space. I can buy that.

I have seen Smith accused of name-dropping. Well, sort of. But those were the names of the moment. Some were passing encounters, Hendrix, for example, whom she literally passes in a stairwell. Kind of impersonal. I believe it happened and that it was important to her, but a bit odd, a kind of I-was-in-the-elevator-with-Jerry Garcia kind of moment. But then, she’s “just kids.” Just like you and me. Indeed, she didn’t know Jim Morrison, her moment followed his, shortly. She visited his gravesite at Pere Lachaise. hey, me, too. Just kids.

Her description of her affair with Sam Shepherd was a bit implausible—she didn’t know he was Sam Shepherd, for a long time. Uh, okay, but . . . really?

Drugs. Other people take them, but she doesn’t. Then, after a while, maybe, she does. I almost had the feeling that she was thinking of her children as readers when she wrote the book. There are deaths, but there’s also a form of sanitization in the shape of recall she exercises here. But, why not? All of our memories are selective.

I had a couple more qualms, but these aren’t dealbreakers either. One, as a portrait of an artist it’s a bit thin. The first chapter, the dreamy childhood, the books, the longing to be elsewhere: pretty basic. Familiar. It’s little alarming to me that this desire to be an artist prefigures a genre or any real art-making. In this way artistry and celebrity are merged. She has drive and she achieves both–artistry and celebrity–but she achieves them simultaneously. And there’s something that makes me nervous about that–mostly, I suppose, it's that I see a lot of that, and it usually doesn't work out very well. I trust those who want to make art infinitely more than I trust those who want to become artists. I believe in the difference, though it can, as it did for Smith, even out in the end.

She mentions her devotion to Rimbaud. Repeatedly. But, I have to say, and here I sound like an academic (forgive me!) but there’s no real evidence that she has understood Rimbaud, except as kind of cult figure, the kind she hopes, in fact, to become. But wait! This isn’t a damned academic thesis–does she have to account for Rimbaud? Good question. I’m not sure, but I wish she had. Frankly, I wasn’t convinced she necessarily knew anything of Rimbaud. He had become for her a name, in the way Tennyson’s Ulysses becomes to himself. But then, she isn’t trying to prove that, and why should she? The subtitle of the book could be “Sweetness and Dreamtime in the Chelsea.” And that’s fine.

No memoir is complete, particularly when it has no such intention. She defines her own limits here. Let me put it this way: when she writes another book of prose, I’ll read it. But she may well not write another book of prose. Will this one suffice? Yes.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Seven Summits

The point of lists is to take them under advisement and then make our own.

Okay, I’m breaking Dr. Schiff’s numero uno rule for a successful blog, by shifting topics, which thus far had been literary. But if the general theme were enlarged only slightly to passions, then, mountaineering is clearly on topic. The traditional Seven Summits list is comprised of the highest points on each of the seven continents. Done many times since first accomplished by Dick Bass, it’s become, well, a tad unimaginative at this point.

I decided to construct my own Seven Summits list, now, as I enter my fortieth year of climbing. Only Kennedy and Alpamayo were givens: top two, hands down. The others had to be culled from hundreds of outings. Hard to do.

The emboldened phrase that follows the entry is the at-a-glance note I made to myself as I put the list together. I’ve enlarged the descriptions to try to articulate why these have somehow become so memorable.

1975 Mt Stuart, North Ridge, North Cascades, Washington, partner John McInerney

An exponential leap forward, an unplanned extra night out, ice cold beer in the stream at the car, a gigantic elk in the middle of the road. Later, Steck & Roper would anoint this one of the Fifty Classic Climbs in North America. (I think I’ve done about ten of them, yet this one, accomplished before their list existed, is the only climb I’ve put on my list).

1977 Mt Kennedy, North Ridge, St Elias Range, partners: Scott Baker, Terry Boley, Jack Lewis, Alan Millar.

Another exponential leap forward (exponentially more exponential than the last entry!) 35 days in the range, in and out on skis, probable first over a pass, great friends, every day a gift. This was the second ascent. The third would wait about 25 years. It’s probably very much due to this trip, so many years ago, that I now live in Alaska.

1980 Tour Ronde, French Alps, with John McInerney

Victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, starts with an illegal bivvy at the top of the Aiguille du Midi, then a night at the sublime Col de Forche hut. An early morning rappel from the hut to the Brenva Glacier, a long retreat, culminating in an esoteric ascent of the Tour Ronde from an obscure hardly-ever-climbed (if ever) ridge, and a dead man’s walk back up to the Aiguille du Midi. Unbelievable.

1984 Alpamayo, Cordillera Blanca, Peru, with Jim Lucke

High, remote, hard, the north ridge, reached from a high camp at the Quitaraju/Alpamayo col and then a long scary traverse under the famous southwest face. Another remote bivvy miles from nowhere at the base of the ridge. The third north ridge on this list, I now notice.

1990 The Snaz, Tetons, with Tom Huckin

Long, sustained, historic. Stands in for a lot of climbs in the Tetons, Wasatch, and even the Wind Rivers. Death Canyon: bear scat and elk herds. A long day, starting and ending in the dark. Midnight steak and a longneck beer at Tom’s sister’s house. First ascent by Chouinard and Hempel. Just before this climb we learned Aisha was pregnant with Dougal and somehow carrying that knowledge weighted the event.

1999 Hobbit Book, Tuolumne Meadows, with Jim Pinter-Lucke

Great, but also carries a huge symbolic weight as the only Sierra/Yosemite climb on list, (out of dozens and dozens of them, many great). Tuolumne is special, the route is just far enough off the beaten path so that it feels alpine and remote, even though it really isn’t. It’s runout, and just . . . cool.

2007 Cima Grande de Lavaredo, Dolomites, with John McInerney

Just freakin’ cool, (use of the word cool is kind of like giving up; translated: I can't really describe it.) One of the justifiably famous three Towers of the Lavaredo. Not a perfect day weather-wise, but wild and adventurous, in a most amazing setting. I suppose that having been weathered off the Eiger (no, not the north face) made our unplanned excursion to the Dolomites just feel like luck had unexpectedly turned our way.


I remember once, in my naiveté, asking the novelist David Kranes what was the favorite of his books. He laughed, very good-naturedly, and said that the answer to that question is always the last one. By that criteria, my last climb of any stature was in 2009—Italy’s Boot just above the Pika Glacier in the Alaska Range with James Chesher (see photo).

Or maybe the seventh position, the last on the list, should be always left blank, in anticipation of the next grand adventure.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

List Readers, List Makers

If you’ve read any of these blog entries you are already aware that I’m a big fan of lists, probably because, like writing on this blog, list-making is a form of writing that’s just another form of not-writing, procrastination, a thing I put between myself and the real work.

I’m writing now in praise of the New York Times list of notable books of the year. In a year in which half the internet articles I read are about the “end of publishing,” which is nearly the same argument as the death of the novel that we’ve been hearing about for about fifty years, which is nearly the same as Nietzche’s famous utterance about God, the point being: Hello? None of these things are dead. The other half of the internet stuff I read, by the way, is devoted to arguing that MFA programs are “ponzi schemes,” or some variation thereof. Tired stuff.

Okay, The Times list: it’s wonderful. Terrific books were published in 2010. The only two of the one hundred listed that I read were The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell and The Same River Twice by Ted Mooney. Both are writers whose work I have always loved and both were completely absorbing. The Mitchell was astonishingly good. Every page was a work of art.

I do plan to read the new Franzen and the list reminds me that I want to read Jennifer Egan’s, A Visit from the Goon Squad.

The list also exposes gaps in my review reading; I missed even knowing about Charles Yu’s How to Live in Science Fictional Universe and David Goodwillie’s American Subversive. And, Per Patterson is on the list with a new book, reminding me to read his earlier Out Stealing Horses first. Ditto: Nicole Krauss: read her first one, then this new one, Great House. Anthony Doerr has a new book, too. Antonya Nelson. It’s hard to keep up.

Only two of the books feature Nazis; three are set in the Viet Nam war.

It’s interesting that poetry and fiction are here linked together in the same list, when poetry is often (wrongly) presumed to be a form of nonfiction. I suppose it’s an aesthetic linking, but that’s not right either, is it? That presumes nonfiction is less artful than fiction and that’s not always the case. So, there are among the fifty fiction and poetry selections: three poetry titles. Three. And since two of them are Edward Hirsch and Derek Walcott, both of whom are already institutions unto themselves, I will keep a sharp eye out for the third, Lisa Robertson, of whom I’ve never heard whose book is engagingly titled Lisa Robertson's Magenta Soul Whip.

In the nonfiction list: lots to be interested in. I probably won’t read the Rebecca Skloot: it feels so slickly “packaged,” I have the impression, somehow, that “the fix is in.” My loss, probably. I’ve also decided to not read Keith Richards' book, even though I’m curious. I read a terrific review of it in Dan Nadel‘s culture blog in the Paris Review Daily Blog. In a couple sentence summary, he’s convinced me to instead read Jimmy McDonough’s book about Neil Young, Shakey.

Nadel, by the way, is completely engaging in these “reports.” And I had never even heard of him before.

It’s a curious omission that in the list of fifty nonfiction books, Patti Smith’s, Just Kids can’t make the cut, even though it won the National Book Award.

For a list of lists. Check out:

The largeheartedboy seems not to identify himself any more specifically on his blog.

Finally, I find the list very heartening, and yet another thing for which I am thankful, even though it omitted Solomon's Oak, by Jo-Ann Mapson, one of the best books I read in 2010.

Literature, books, publishing are all wildly alive. As ever.

(Bonus video for those who scrolled down this far!)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Notes on: "Overnight Sensations and 'You Can’t Hurry Love'"

“Overnight Sensations and “You Can’t Hurry Love” was the slapdash title of a talk I gave to the Alaska Writers Guild last week. My original intention was to turn the whole talk into a posting here, and perhaps I will do that yet, only it would be about four postings. The title refers first to that feeling we sometimes have (if I may presume a collective we, thank-you) when some unknown person, often young, becomes famous, overnight (as it were). On closer look, I have noticed that almost none of them acquired their fame (fleeting anyway, right?) overnight, but were often extraordinary people , working quietly in the trenches. Sometimes, of course, luck is involved, but luck is usually earned, too. The second half of my title “You Can’t Hurry Love” has simply been a writing mantra of mine for years and it comes to me from my adolescence in Detroit, from Diana Ross and the Supremes. It means a piece of writing is going to take you as long as you need to take to get it right. It will unfold in its own time, if you work steadily at it. Those were the two touchstones of the talk, which was then peppered liberally with historical literary examples in support, such as this line from Jim Harrison's introduction to the paintings of his friend, Russell Chatham: "To be an artist is to be a member of a ten-thousand-year old guild, not a competitor in a horse race." I've always taken that line to heart, notwithstanding that Harrison seems now to be writing a book almost yearly.

I suppose, if the talk had a subtitle it would have been something like, “A rationalization (confession) for why I work so damned slowly.” I’m a little over it now, the talk.

What I wanted to say here was something about the way I was introduced at the talk. Dave Brown, who did the introduction, asked, very reasonably, who are my favorite writers. Why is it that I am always surprised by that most logical of questions? And that I never want to commit an answer to it? I told him I would be likely to answer that question differently every time I was asked.

But when I thought more about it, I decided that the criteria ought to be the same for the answer to this question: “Which writers do I own very book they’ve written? Which ones do I go out and buy immediately? To how many am I thusly devoted?”

And so I answered him: Jim Harrison, David Mitchell, and Kem Nunn. And, without elaboration, now, I can stand by those three. Some time later I realized that, by that criteria, there are at least twenty more writers on the list. Some of the books I have not read, but intend to do so. When W. G. Sebald died, for example, I stopped reading him. I wanted to parcel out his unread works to myself over time, knowing that their number is fixed. I have all of Richard Powers books, and have been “collecting” them from the very beginning of his career. But I confess that I have only read the two most recent, The Echo Maker and Generosity. I loved them as I somehow knew I would. Now, I have only to decide in what order to read the remaining volumes.

What unread book would I most regret not having read, were that to be my last thought as I die? I have to figure that out now and read that book next. Ars longa, vita brevis.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Summer Reading: Yet Another Exercise in Wretched Excess

In the photograph are the books I returned home with after my very long road trip. By “very long” I mean to be deliberately vague—many days, many miles. The whole question of how many books one should take on a trip is now a little bit complicated by the weight limits at airline baggage counters. Obviously minimalism is a sound practice. However, this trip only started by air; I ended on the road.

There’s also the general question of reading while you travel. It’s a little odd, since traveling and reading shared some commonalities. Reading is already a form of travel, after all. As I have previously admitted here, and as everyone who knows me knows, I have “book issues.” They are central to my life. Here’s what I ended up with on this excursion:

Top shelf: I packed these in my luggage.

1. I’d been waiting all summer to read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet, by David Mitchell. He’s one of that small handful of writers whose books I buy as soon as they are published. Reading it, on the coast of Oregon, local hand-crafted IPA in hand, was a sublime experience.

2. I had to bring Selected Alpine Climbs in the Canadian Rockies, by Sean Dougherty for the last leg of the trip. Also: one of my very favorite dream guidebooks.

3. Banff Area Rock Climbs, Murray Toft is a small paperback that came out in 1981. I find it useful. Also, it’s kind of rare and unknown, so using it I feel like I have secret knowledge.

Next Shelf: I began acquiring these along the way.

4. McMenamin’s Edgefield: a History of the Multnomah County Poor Farm, by Sharon Nesbit. Had to have this. Edgefield is the site of a large McMenamin’s hotel/brewery/distillery/concert grounds, with a heavy Jerry Garcia theme throughout. Once a proverbial poorhouse, we stayed here after our hike at Three Cornered Rock. This is the proverbial poorhouse that my parents warned me about. Now, the poorhouse is no more. Instead we have the homeless.

5. Paris Review. This one has the David Mitchell interview. Most impressive are his drawings and outlinings—a nice companion piece to the novel, as if, the novels themselves are not evidence enough of his genius.

6. Tapping the Source, by Kem Nunn. I bought this, the British paperback edition, for my son Macklin to read, but I read it first even though I’ve already read it two or three times before. Still one of the most amazing first novels ever. Macklin liked it too. Now I can steal my first edition back from him. The British edition, by the way, had a wildly inappropriate cover, yet had thick creamy paper.

7. My friend Bernie Wood, bibliophile and esquire, and who we visited in Astoria (Oregon) gave me a couple climbing books: Terris Moore’s Mt McKinley: The Pioneer Climbs—which is interesting because Moore made the first ascent of Mt Sanford in the Wrangells with Bradford Washburn and I had just begun to be interested in that climb; and 8) My Life of High Adventure by Grant H. Pearson, a little known book about another early McKinley climb. I think at least one other book has that exact same title and it’s the invisible subtitle to a couple hundred others. Bernie watches out for me when he haunts the bookshops and yard sales. Glad to have both books.

Third Shelf (by the way these are arranged roughly chronologically, as I acquired them):

9) In Chicago, Jeff Schiff highly recommended Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann, so I picked it up at Union Station buried amid the stacks of Steig Larson. I probably didn’t like it as much as Jeff (a native New Yorker--and that's central here) or as much as the National Book Award Committee who selected it. Lots to admire, though.

Visiting Tama Baldwin and John Mann in Iowa City, I spied a copy of 10) Magic for Beginners, by Kelly Link in the Haunted Bookstore—now relocated to Linn St. I loved her Stranger Things Happen and I really love her story “Stone Animals,” collected in this one. It’s a pristine hardcover, inscribed by Link herself. On the downside, the house in which it had been unread was inhabited by heavy smokers.

Tama put two books in my hand as I left: 11) Orphans, by Charles D’Ambrosio. These are essays and they are incredible. Also, a gorgeous book published by a probably short-lived subscription press, Clear- Cut Press. No one writes essays like D’Ambrosio. As it turns out this is a rare book and I’ll have to send Tama a reciprocal tome. Also, she gave me an extra copy of 12) Per Patterson’s Out Stealing Horses. I’m sure it’s fine—many reliable persons have recommended it.

14) Bozeman Rock Climbs, by Bill Dockins. Peter Cole had a copy of this and lent it to me. We used it in Hyalite Canyon on the nicest weather day of the whole road trip, a day of rock climbing in the sun, on which Macklin had carried his guitar up the approach. I left my camera in the car that day. We finished the afternoon at the hot springs and later with bottles of Fat Tire.

So that’s it, 14 books. Unless movies count. Macklin picked up a copy of Snatch on the theory that a man should never travel without a Guy Ritchie movie. I also picked up a map of the Banff area, which cost the same as a book. Oh yeah, and a couple Canadian magazines at Mac’s Fireweed Bookstore in Whitehorse, a great shop. Whew.

And if you have the space you can stop by your old house, 4,500 miles from your new house, to find that the strangers who live there have taken down a cupboard of the wall. So you grab the cupboard, put the books in it and drive it back home to Anchorage.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Of Cranky Lists and Listing Cranks

When I posted a link on Facebook to Anis Shivani’s Huffington Post piece on the "15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers'", I worried a bit about the karmic chain: how would such a reiteration return to bite me in the ass? Let’s remember that the purpose of any such list ought to be to, essentially, for us to disagree, and to make our own lists. Most of us, however, will chose, to make positive lists: favorites, or underrated writers, such as Mr. Shivani himself has promised but not yet released.

Two of Mr. Shivani’s points regarding MFA programs are very easily dismissed. For a wise and more measured dismissal than I will offer here, please see Bill Roorbach’s response here:

Mr. Shivani says that MFA programs produce “cookie-cutter” writing. I’m not sure what this assertion is based on, but I think it’s similar to the argument that crops ups every so often against “New Yorker fiction.” There may have once been such a thing as “New Yorker fiction,” but presently the notion can easily be dispelled by picking up any four issues of the magazine and reading the fiction: much diversity there (oh I forgot, diversity as a value in fiction is not an aesthetic Mr. Shivani appreciates very much). But diversity abounds in MFA programs; I see it every day.

Mr. Shivani believes that imitation is an important pedagogical practice in MFA programs. It isn’t. Perhaps he is really talking about literary influence. In which case, I’m not sure how MFA students could be said to be unduly influenced by what they read. (Note to self: be influenced more by Nabokov.) That is: how are MFA writers more influenced by what they read than other writers? We are all consciously and unconsciously influenced by our reading. Mr. Shivani seems to think that MFA programs conspire to produce imitators. Please.

His other easily dismissed point about MFA programs also seems to suffer from some bizarre, if not paranoid, sense that MFA programs have incestuous ties to the publishing world. I’d love to know more! Where do I sign up? As Bill points out, the publishing world has bigger issues at the moment, mainly that it seems to be disappearing. This is not due to long-time non-existent collusion with MFA programs. More likely due to a long-time collusion with the almighty dollar.

The point that Mr. Shivani makes that I find most interesting, and, I admit, worrisome, is that somehow MFA programs have led to a loss of critical thinking and reading. I worry about how much we can do with a student’s course of study in a two or three year period in a program for which the single most important criteria for admission is writing ability. I have to remind myself that three years is not very long, that an MFA is not a PhD, and that like all hard-earned rewards, critical thinking and reading come from a life-long commitment. While Mr. Shivani claims that MFA programs have somehow contributed to the decline of critical thinking, in actuality this is yet another prong of his argument for which he himself has provided no evidence. And yet his own poor argumentative skills apparently were not learned in an MFA program.

Yet I sympathize with the view that we all really ought to read more and read with a more critical eye. Of course we do.

A few notes on his selections. I haven’t read many of them, so cannot comment. But I did wonder how much of their work Mr. Shivani himself had read. William Vollman's literary crime seems to be that he has written too much. For all his words, I’m not sure Vollman has enough readers to be overrated.

Vendler and Kakutani have too much power. Okay. The power pie probably ought to be sliced up differently. Big deal. Vendler is taken to task for championing Jorie Graham. And the fact that they are both presently at Harvard, Mr. Shivani implies, is . . . conspiratorial. (Note: Mr. Shivani claims some sort of connection to Harvard, but it’s very diplomatically written, so as to be nearly meaningless). But Shivani ought to know—Harvard affiliation or not–that Vendler’s appreciation for Graham’s work began before joined Harvard’s faculty full-time, and that Graham’s appointment there came much later. (Note to Mr. Shivani: this is how the world works. When you apply for a job, someone on the hiring committee must champion your value and convince other member of the committee of it.)

Mr. Shivani thinks Jonathan Safran Foer is overrated, more or less neglecting his brilliant first book, Everything is Illuminated, written when he was practically a teenager. His critique of Denis Johnson seems, again, ignorant of the work, and, okay I admit, I love Johnson’s work, and I guess that Harold Bloom is a moron for loving it also. Antonya Nelson? Hard-working, sharp-eyed, under-read Antonya Nelson? How can someone so undeservingly under-read make an overrated list? I don’t get it. Could it be that she lives in Houston, where Mr. Shivani lives, and deep down (though not too deeply) Mr. Shivani is simply jealous?

So, why did I post this article on my Facebook page? Well, it made me think. It alerted me to possible attacks on the MFA, an institution in which I believe. Work against whatever grain of truth those breathless assertions might contain. It’s good to be reminded there ought to be no sacred literary cows, eh? Surely some writers are indeed overrated, if not these, who? All he’s really said is: I don’t think these writers are as good as other people do. There’s no harm in saying that. He’s stirred the pot a bit, and let’s face it, that’s exactly what he was trying to do.

Read more. Think critically. Be better conversant in the literary conversation.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Welcome to the Dreamtime

(A reconstruction of my welcome notes to the UAA MFA Summer Residency 2010, July 10, 2010)

Although I know that Jessica Graves (third-year nonfiction student) likes to refer to the residency as the “geekfest,” I tend to see it a tad differently. I’ve been thinking a lot about this residency and how the time spent here seems to operate according to a different set of rules than non-residency time, or ordinary life.

We are entering a kind of dreamtime.

Peter Weir’s 1977 film, The Last Wave, opens with these words of contextualization:
"Aboriginals believe in two forms of time; two parallel streams of activity. One is the daily objective activity, the other is an infinite spiritual cycle called the 'dreamtime', more real than reality itself. Whatever happens in the dreamtime establishes the values, symbols, and laws of Aboriginal society. It was believed that some people of unusual spiritual powers had contact with the dreamtime."

Here we are in the dreamtime.

Robert Schumann, the 19th century German composer, made music that creates for its listeners a sense of delirious time. It is said that Schuman wrote all his music in a trance.

Writers and the peculiar kind of double life we live: the oft-repeated theory that story is always greater than the writer. Let me try to explain how that works.

You probably know persons who have been consumed by reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the other two extant books in the series. Or, more likely, you are such person yourself. I loved Charles McGrath’s article on Steig Larsson a few months ago in the Sunday NY Times magazine. As is now fairly well known, Larsson was a first time novelist who had stockpiled the three books before submitting them to a publisher. Before the first one came out Larsson died at the age of 52, without having learned what a worldwide publishing phenomenon his work was about to become.

What struck me most about the article was the disbelief a number of his friends possessed as to whether he actually wrote the books. They simply couldn’t believe that this guy, never a prose stylist, who had devoted his working life to writing about working class causes, was capable of such a tour de force as the books had become.

But something in me said that these people were exactly wrong. That, in fact, what Larsson had done is what the artist must do: he had transcended himself.

Throughout his work, Thoreau makes many observations about the doubled self, such as: “However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are.” One way I have of making sense of this doubling is that one of these lives is the writing life. Even if the work is “mean,” i.e. average, it’s still better than we are.

My friend Dan Mancilla was teaching the great Stuart Dybek story “Hot Ice,” when a student, a freshman, observed that water in its liquid, frozen and gaseous states in “Hot Ice” represents the Holy Trinity. According to Dan she said it was so obvious that she was almost too embarrassed to voice it. Was she right? Of course, it’s obvious onceit's been pointed out (note: it’s not obvious). Did Dybek intend it? Doubtful. Dan will ask him soon, if he hasn’t already. But it works brilliantly with the story’s thematic concerns. What can we know, anyway, of writers’ intentions when they don’t voice them, when we don’t have them to ask? It’s art, it’s better than the writer.

Seymour Chatman in Story and Discourse comes up with a somewhat puzzling diagram of the participants in “a narrative communication situation.” In between the “real author” and the narrator is the mysterious “implied author.” Of this implied author, Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan say: “its relation to the real author is admitted to be of great psychological complexity and has rarely been analyzed except to suggest that implied authors are often far superior in intelligence and moral standards to the actual men and women who are real authors.”

I was reading a blog entry that Heather Lende (third-year fiction student) wrote describing a public reading of from her new book Take Care of the Garden and the Dogs. She describes this incredible moment of being moved by her own work in a way that she hadn’t been when she wrote the piece. Events had happened between writing the book and that reading that made her see her words in a new light. “Writing,” Heather said, “has a way of happening.”

Probably the most famous literary exercise on this is Jorge Luis Borges’ “Borges and I.” It begins: “It’s to the other man, to Borges, that things happen.” And in about 400 words, concludes, thusly: “Which of us is writing this page I don’t know.”

Now, as we enter the residency, the dreamtime, the trance, I am wishing for you the kind of happiness Henry James spoke of in Roderick Hudson:

“True happiness we are told consists in getting out of one’s self; but the point is not only to get out—you must stay out; and to stay out, you must have some absorbing errand.”

And if true happiness must remain outside our grasp, I am at least, confident that we have set before us an absorbing errand.

(Illustration from René Daumal’s Mt. Analogue)

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Olivetti lettera 32

Yet another material burden I relieved myself of when we moved was typewriters. I had two: an electric Brother, which was state-of the art on the eve of computer world-dominance. and even had a clumsy little memory. I also had a garage sale portable that I thought of as an objet-d’art.

I had previously jettisoned my rebuilt Remington on which I typed some of my undergraduate essays. It had a big dent in the carriage that I covered with an epigraph from Dylan’s Idiot Wind “Their minds are filled with big ideas, images, and distorted facts.” (Had I to do over I might choose from the same song: “You’re an idiot, babe, It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.”) I plucked the letters off the keys with a pair of pliers before I let it go.

Last week I plucked an Olivetti lettera 32 out of the trash. Oh man, I always wanted one of these. (Would now be a good time to confess that I can’t even actually type? I can process words with two fingers, which is fine because I can do that about as fast as I think (in other words not very fast) and then revise the heck out of it).

An Olivetti lettera 32 is a beautiful machine. Cormac McCarthy typed every one of his novels on one and then auctioned his off for the startling price of $254,000. Then he bought another one, but in better condition. I read that he paid a little over 300 for it.

When I needed Eddie, the main character in my novel, to buy a typewriter in Mexico City 1974, he bought himself an Olivetti lettera 32. Thus, he owned one before I did. He could also type better than I can, though I don't think I mentioned this in the book.

Last week I was watching the film version of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. And sure enough, when Tom forges letters on Dickie’s typewriter to provide a paper trail suggesting Dickie is alive (and not dead, at Tom’s hands) he types them on Dickie’s lettera 32. However, the lettera 32 was not produced until 1963 and The Talented Mr. Ripley is set in the late fifties. Thus the movie was sloppy and totally unrealistic. Just kidding, it’s a terrific film.

But 1963 was an auspicious year: it’s said that every war correspondent writing from Viet Nam did so on an Olivetti lettera 32.

I’m going to order some ribbons for it. Then, after the apocalypse, when the grid has collapsed and word processors can’t be powered up because everyone only has a tiny bit of power that they have to save so they can blend up a pitcher of margaritas, I’ll sit on an orange crate in the market typing up letters and legal documents for hire. I’ll do yours for free, so long as you’re not in a hurry.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Report from Kachemak Bay Writers Conference 1

First: hats off to Carol Swartz and all, particularly the splendid Michael Cunningham, who set the tone, for three great days. I put the number one after my title to blackmail myself to write up more on the conference later. Meanwhile:

Why I Am Who I Am* (and also ***)

An exercise** prompted by Dinty W. Moore

My grandmother’s hands were strong; she needed them to be so to wrangle 50 pound sacks of flour in her bakery. When I think of the phrase “work your fingers to the bone,” I think of her hands.

And, then, of course, as I grew and she began to shrink, so did her hands. Her knuckles swelled and her veins rose to the surface. Liver spots.

She ended her days bedridden in a nursing home. There, my aunt painted her fingernails almost daily, a luxury she had not known in her working life.

By the time I was born, the Rouge had been polluted by a hundred years of sewage and industrial waste. Some days its odor rose up out of the woods like an invisible fog, a distinct odor, but of what? Sulphur, rotten gas, vague chemicals, dead fish, the bodies of carp rotting in evaporating pools where earlier in the spring the river had spilled over its banks. None of this quite captures the river’s peculiar foulness, which to us was natural: it was just the Rouge.

Rouge River
Asian Carp
Approaching thunderstorms
Felician nuns
Pagan babies
Red peril
Bomb shelters
Homemade popsicles
Tornado warnings
Fire drills.

The modesty of my childhood might be measured by the relative tameness of the phrases we were forbidden by our parents to speak.

Considering them now, I see that they are really both saying the same thing:

“So what?”
“I don’t care.”

Ironically, “I don’t care” often meant something like “yes, but you decide,” or “yes, but I don’t wish to appear greedy.”

“So what?” was pure insolence, and was understood as if intended to make my father’s head explode.

In our house, where there wasn’t much of anything, everything mattered.


* The four prompts for this exercise were given to us by Dinty, then we shuffled them into a random order, and only then were we told the title to the piece we had just composed.

** This was a great exercise, from a pedagogical point-of-view. I’d put it into my can‘t-miss-magic-hat-of-exercises, for sure. That is, students write very well for twenty minutes. Meaning: students were happy with what they wrote. Meaning: what the students wrote was pretty damned good . . . for an exercise. Mine was about average and wouldn’t have distinguished itself from the students who read theirs aloud. An odd thing I noticed was that all the people who read who were about my age (most of them!) read an exercise that had a lot of common elements, as if we shared some national collective childhood. So, we were tapped into something. But, what I couldn’t help noticing was that exercises (in general, even at their best) have a glass-ceiling: the writing has a long way to go to rise out of the stature of exercise to the status of something aspiring to the condition of literature. Many of us can do a nice push-up, but that ain’t playing the game.

*** A note on the title: jeez, I think my childhood was a lot happier than what follows the title! But of course (great deconstructive move, Dinty) the title follows the text, in its composition, at least. And yet, as Borges has noted: great writing (not mine) is often about darker subjects: happiness is its own reward! Look: I've used exclamation points: I am becoming retarded.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Lost and Found

My current living situation is this: about three fourths of the books I own are stored in boxes in my garage. This is due, mostly, to having moved from a very large house in the rural midwest to a very modest-sized house in Anchorage.

I went out to the garage the other day searching for an anthology in which appears Michael Cunningham’s terrific story “White Angel.” This shouldn’t be so much a needle-in-the-haystack affair: there should be a whole box of anthologies. But I have not seen the box since we arrived here in Anchorage.

What I found instead was my collection of Canadian Alpine Journals, Dougal Haston and Peter Gillman’s, Direttisima, which I forgot I even owned, and which would have been invaluable a few months back when I was writing an essay on Haston. I also found one copy of my American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1970). I really like the 1970 edition because that’s the year I started paying attention to words. I actually have another copy of the same edition, so I can have one at my office and one at home. Thus: the other copy of the dictionary is missing. However, on the plus side, I located the third edition of the same dictionary, from 1992. This is my second favorite dictionary. Comparing definitions from these two dictionaries, published 22 years apart, is the best evidence I know to demonstrate that language is fluid, evolving (or, as some would have it, devolving). However, the largest book I own, or once owned, the Oxford English Dictionary, remains missing. I have the magnifying glass, though. I am trusting that it, and the duplicate American Heritage, are out there, along with my vintage Icelandic to English dictionary, which I love purely as an object in the world.

On the plus side I retrieved my mostly unread copy of Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory, as well as the 20th anniversary edition of Boulevard, which belongs at the office with the rest of the Boulevards. Finally, here is the long-lost Illustrated Guide to Glacier Travel and Crevasse Rescue by Tyson and Cleland which has the best drawings for making and attaching prussic slings, a task which for me never seems to become second nature and which I will be needing very soon for a Byron Peak attempt.

The only books I know for certain are lost were mailed here: one box arrived opened and half-empty. It had been filled with American Alpine Journals and now my collection has holes. The rest of the missing books aren’t really missing, I have faith in their presence out there among the rest of the human detritus for which there is no room indoors: bicycles, skis, wicker furniture, plastic tubs filled with random household goods, studded winter tires, including a set of four for a car we don’t even own. It’s a sad state of affairs, but temporary.

Oh, and I never found my “White Angel.” I found (miraculously) a copy in the library, but what I didn’t find in the library is another story, longer and sadder.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


My mother’s father, Jack Flynn, is the only veteran I know of in my family history. And the only Memorial Day in my childhood that I can remember being celebrated in a traditional way was a singular visit to the cemetery outside of Capac, Michigan where he was laid to rest. I can’t say that I know too much about him, except for the fact that after returning from World War I he finished studies at Detroit College of Law , but never practiced. In fact, never worked, at all. My mother, and her sister, rarely spoke of him—a fact they don’t quite acknowledge, even now. Every year I find out another fact, or two, about him, for example, this year I learned he wore spatz every day. Spatz.

In an early Jules Verne story, space travelers expel a dead dog from their “rocket ship,” only to find that the dog, named “Satellite,” remains with the ship as it hurtles toward the moon through empty space. In this way, Robert Pogue Harrison reminds us, in his book, The Dominion of the Dead, the dead “like to stay close to the living.” I, too, feel that they are never far from us.

So Memorial Day, I think no more nor less of the dead that any other day. I do however think of the past. It’s really the first day of summer. The smell of mown lawn and motor oil. Ernie Harwell’s voice (Godpseed, Ernie!) describing Al Kaline fouling off pitch after pitch until he finds just the one to line into the gap. Strohs, fire brewed for flavor, preferably in long-necked bottles, recapped so many times that they’re gone grey around the edges. Or Faygo Rock and Rye. Vernors. The last days of grade school, the promise of summer upon us exactly like . . . the promise of summer.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Biting the Hand That Doesn’t Feed You

I’m not sure if it’s the word itself: blog (which is graceless) or the concept that I find so unappealing. The unappealing aspect of the concept, I suppose, is its not so subtle apparent aim of self-promotion. But one does not want to look too closely at this, since ultimately, you can arrive at the question of what makes blogging different from other forms of writing? In which case, we find self-promotion lurking always somewhere beneath the surface. I suppose one of the criteria for good writing is subtlety, ¬the self-promoting angle must appear to be non-existent.

Further, what could be more obvious than that I was not made to blog? Blogging is about speed and the appearance of spontaneity. I don’t even consider myself a writer; more accurately, I am a re-writer. I revise grocery lists. My first drafts are ugly; with work I can make them serviceable, and with some more work, and luck, occasionally elegant. Thoreau said, “It goes too fast.” I love how he, and Emerson too, seemed to get away with using pronouns for which there is no discoverable referent. “It” here, I concluded means “life.” But the internet moves even faster.

The other objectionable aspect of the internet writing is that anyone can do it. Why does that “scare” me? Ahhh, it must be related to that same ego which doesn’t wish to appear self-promoting, but is nonetheless. If anyone can do it, why would I bother? The trick, of course, is to do it well. You set your own bar, as always.

Still, I tend to believe as shitmydadsays: “YOU, a published writer? Internet don’t count. Anyone can throw shit up there.” By the way shitmydadsays will soon be a television program. The book is advertised as “The memoir that came from twitter.” I check in on facebook and it’s one funny line after another. The lines are funny enough that they make me wonder, how exactly, they find a narrative line that magically turns them into a memoir. But, I can’t say I’m curious enough that I’ll buy the book.

I remember the old (now) metaphor to describe deconstruction: a person is sitting on a tree limb sawing the branch on which he sits. The idea, I think it was Jonathan Culler’s image, is that those theorists used language to describe how meaning derived from language is arbitrary or, unknowable. They were chopping down the tree of language with an axe made of language. A little like the person who announces,” I am a liar.” Or not. Anyway, I am using a blog to interrogate blogging. Now I am finished and vow to never use the word blog again.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The title of this blog is random. I looked up at my book shelf with an eye for a title to steal and came up with this one by Francis Spufford. I feel all right about stealing Spufford's title as he himself stole it from Lawrence Oates, a member of Scott's doomed Antarctic expedition. "I may be some time," were Lawrence's' last words as he left the tent and walked out into a blizzard never to return. It was thought by his expedition mates that he sacrificed his life for the good of the others. Nonetheless, they all died. Lawrence's body was never found. The only possible meaning it may have for me personally is that I hope to be . . . sometime. The sooner the better.