Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Art of Losing

Yesterday I drove past a house I loved and lost a few years ago, and I was put in mind of Elizabeth Bishop, the American poet (The Complete Poems 1927-1979). There are two of her poems that I have always found parts of replaying in my head at appropriate moments.

One of those moments occurred yesterday, driving past this house and knowing that its fate in demolition prone Houston is certain, perhaps even as soon as this fall. I lived in this house longer than in any other. It’s where I raised my son, and frankly I thought I’d live there for the rest of my life. (Never mind why we sold it. There are many reasons why one sells something one ought to keep.)

Passing by, I felt that sense of floating that seems so natural now in this city. Floating as in untethered to landmarks, as in moving through a space where one has expectations of surroundings that have vanished so completely they might never have existed. (And what is left in their place? For the most part, generic exurbia; or, in the case of houses, gigantic boxes, built on spec, that fill their lots, that endanger and usually kill the trees that give this city what charm it has, the trees that are the principal reason anyone would want to live here, given a choice.)

When you float in this manner it is because you suddenly don’t know where you are—you might be anywhere in this city, state, country. And when you are anywhere, as Walker Percy chronicles, you are nowhere.

I have to be honest, here: part of the floating sensation probably derived from the adrenaline surge that accompanies anger at how powerless we are against the forces of development, and yes, greed. With global warming a fact that can be experienced each day of summer in Texas, why does anyone with fewer than eleven children need a 5000+ square foot house? With tall ceilings that gobble up airconditioning? When is peer pressure going to well up and sneer at the unbridled ego evidenced by such a house?

But I digress.

I’ve had occasion lately to visit a second loved house, no longer mine, in another city. In the case of both houses, the principal measure of loss has to do with the shock of nothing where a tree should be. The amputation from one’s expectation of familiarity when a tree has been removed registers as nothing less than a small piece of one’s self, torn away. Granted, a tiny piece, not like an arm or leg or anything, but the sting is felt. Most of the time, driving down a street, we experience these absences as merely disconcerting: something’s missing here, right? But unless we know the place very well, we don’t know what precisely it is that has disappeared.

In Santa Fe, it was a Russian olive that had been removed, along with the rose bush (white, fragrant) that bloomed under the guest room window; in Houston, it is a grand, ancient water oak, not gone yet, but clearly sick. For countless years, I watched from the windows of my bedroom while its long-limbed branches divided the sky into slices of geometry; I watched squirrels flirt upon them; and in a hurricane I watched them twirl in the wind like the arms of an orchestra conductor, building to a crescendo in a much calmer place. It is a substantial tree even now, gnarled and worn, its trunk so broad it would take the armspan of at least three men to reach around it.

The only good thing I can think of about not owning that house any more is that I won’t be the one who will have to call the tree surgeon to take it down.

The poem lost houses puts me in mind of is Bishop’s One Art:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! My last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

What’s the other and truly great poem poem of hers that I love? Hint: it’s about a fish.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Elite Sub-literates?

So we have a generation (at least) of top ranked high school and college grads who are sub-literate. Does it matter? Aren’t they busy as little fire ants blogging their hearts out? Or txt mssging? It’s all about communication, isn’t it?

Of course it is. And these will be tomorrow’s members of Congress, the judiciary and, yes, a couple of them will be tomorrow’s presidents. (Inarticulate presidents are nothing new, after all.)

The problem is, in those positions of leadership, they won’t be trying to communicate only with people exactly like themselves, not if the present push for globalization still has a globe to be concerned with. (US wnts U 2 B gd to Ugnda.) No, instead, we’ll have sub-literate international diplomats trying to express the position of the United States to people who do not have our best interests at heart,people who will have nuclear weapons, most likely, and itchy fingers just longing to teach America a big lesson. In a situation like that you want to express your position in the clearest possible words, leaving very little opportunity for the other side to insert its own meanings.

The English language is particularly well suited to clarity and specificity of expression. This is one of its glories. We don’t have to rely on idiomatic images to suggest what we are trying to communicate. We have words that can express remarkable variations upon meaning, if we can train a generation of the sub-literates referred to in Michael Skube’s article (see link above) to know what they mean and how to use them.

There’s more to this generational illiteracy than its diplomatic effect, of course. If you’ve ever tried to edit anyone’s prose, you’ll quickly see that imprecision of language often reflects imprecision of thought. We really don’t need a generation of muddy thinkers to go along with a generation of mushy talkers and writers.

Who’s to blame? Why don’t they read? Rephrase: why don’t they read BOOKS? Easy answer: there’s so much easy distraction, addictive distraction, available that they don’t take the time for it.

But I don’t think the extent of the problem is explained only by the fact they don’t read books. Our culture is awash in fuzzy thinking and bad grammar shouted from every electronic podium. The teachers of our young people grew up in this culture, too, even if it wasn’t as highly developed as it is now. This is why you have “well-educated” thirty-year-olds who still think the house where the Browns live needs an apostrophe before the S; who think something happened to “he and I”, or to “her and I”. And who have no idea how to write an essay that makes use of dependent clauses.

Here’s one way to approach the problem: teach the teachers to write, first. Require our high school teachers to write coherent essays on assigned subjects before letting them loose to teach “writing” to our kids.

And don’t rely so much on giving them—teachers or students—The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (do they do this any more?); give them E.B. White’s essays to read, instead.

Catching up to a reference from an earlier post—I did enjoy Three Junes. It’s a satisfying novel of the mysterious privacies unique to each generation. You’ll never know all your Mom’s secrets, nor she yours.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Carving Carver?

Trying to find out more about the two versions of A Small, Good Thing by Ray Carver, I learned almost too much. First, there were three versions, apparently, and two won awards. Also, there were multiple versions of other stories. And most surprising of all to me, but not apparently to many other people, the reason for the different versions wasn't a stylistic change of heart on the part of the author. Instead, it was a matter of editing, by an editor, namely Gordon Lish.

Lish was the most famous editor of literary fiction in the seventies. He wielded considerable power, made names, etc. In editing Ray Carver, he apparently cut the early stories considerably. It's amazing what can be done by cutting. A famous example is the editing Ezra Pound did of TS Eliot's The Wasteland. Some people consider it created the voice of the poem. In the case of Carver, Lish edited by cutting away until the voice we all think of as uniquely Carver's is revealed. He is said to have pared away detail and sentimentality until what was left was stark and strange. And utterly memorable, of course. Carver, as he gained confidence, allegedly argued against this, winning his freedom, so to speak, with the celebrated collection, Cathedral.

So the final version of A Small, Good Thing was really close to the first version, and the first well known version, The Bath--that is the spooky, minimalist one--is the product of Lish's editing.

Does any of this matter as far as Carver's accomplishment goes? I'm thinking about this and may have more to say on it tomorrow.

From Book to Film

In Santa Fe the other day I picked up a short story collection by Andre Dubus called Separate Flights. The first story in there seemed a little familiar, although I knew I'd never read this collection before. "We Don't Live Here Anymore" is the title. May sound familiar to you, too, and that's because it was made into a film with Naomi Watts, Peter Krause, Laura Dern and Mark Ruffalo. As it happens, I had seen that movie, maybe on DVD, but reading the story (really a novella) I felt that I'd read it before, too. So I went onto Amazon and discovered that the novella has been published in a different edition--as part of a three novella collection under the title of that story. And the cover bears the photographs of the movie's stars. A tie-in.

The sense of having read a short story before is kinda like deja vu. Unsettling, that is. The first time I ever noticed it was in a collection by Ray Carver--except he had actually revised the story somewhat. I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, anything that gave the world another Ray Carver short story is an action deserving praise; on the other hand, it would have been better for there to have been that many more actually new ones.

There's a terrible temptation for an author to "improve" upon older work and authors deal with this temptation in different ways. Some just refuse to re-read the older pieces; some refuse to allow earlier, "inferior" work to be included in comprehensive collections; and some revise. Henry James revised entire novels, in fact, which may have been a stupendous undertaking, even for him.

On the Dubus front, one more oddity: "The House of Sand and Fog" is attributed in many places to Andre Dubus, which it is, but it was written by his son who now uses the designation III, after his name. I can't think of any other American authors, father and son, both of whom have had good films made from their literary work. And yes, I make the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction. See comment below re: elitist B.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Another view? Kathryn on...: Yuck

Kathryn on...: Yuck
The people who spend hours and hours crafting their blog posts, pouring their heart and soul into making something they feel proud of... then whine and complain about why they don't have more readers, and how they don't understand why the flippant, silly girl with goofy pop culture-related posts has higher site traffic. Either you do it for yourself or for others, people. There's a reason a high-concept, high-quality magazine like Topic has so many fewer readers than shopping-crazy Lucky. The more esoteric and abstract your language and topics, the smaller your potential audience. Consider it a badge of honor.

Oh, I am so excited, she's talking about ME! Elitist B that I am. But, hey, she writes very well. It's a valid point of view. Shallow may be the only way to cope these days. Read ChickLit. (I'd cite a title if I could think of one.) Enjoy The Devil Wears...(that makes at least 2 devilish roles for Meryl Streep, what can blogdom pull out of that coincidence?) Maybe the best response is to fiddle away while the globe warms...it's been done before on a smaller scale. But, whoa, that's a reference to history, old white men in Europe-type history. We don't teach or read that any more, do we?

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

U Wanna Write?

An interesting post I read last night excoriates the pretense of people who want to BE writers, as opposed to those who are driven to write. Of course there's a difference. One is fantasy; the other is major hard work. This is his point.

He talks about attending a dinner party where everyone was praising a girl (who's had some media exposure) because she's "writing a journal", which would probably get no attention at all, if she hadn't had media exposure, but since she has experienced that magical immersion, will probably result in a book deal. Gnash, gnash. I, too, am continually finding new ways to be infuriated at our shallow, celebrity obsessed culture and the degree of attention it takes away from ME.

I don't knock journals in general, though. Journaling can be a valuable tool, a resource for the serious writer, an art form on its own. But he's referring to the type of journaling that pretends that shallowness, the celebrity culture, have value in and of themselves--blogging, in other words. Not all blogging, to be sure, but maybe most? He excoriates the pretense involved--the pretense that it matters.

I agree.

Back in the seventies there were many references to the Boomer generation as the Me Generation. Of course, the present blossoming of ego on the internet dwarfs this to a power of about 100. It's all about feeling special, about the way that feeling, common to children, persists for an entire generation into adulthood, and indeed, into the beginnings, at least, of old age.

So, can you blame anyone singled out by the white light of television for believing that there's something even more deeply special about them? Seems logical, almost. My question is why do the myriad of voices nattering away on the internet (including mine) feel that way? Why would anyone care about what most of them (us) have to say? What would make what they have to say different from what anyone else is thinking, when the references from which they formulate their thoughts are identical to what everyone else refers to? (Aha, there's where mine may differentiate a bit...)

There are so few really original viewpoints in a civilization and I would argue that the blossoming of ego in blogdom--rather than allowing the real thing an opportunity to shine--actually snuffs it out with an onslaught of chatter. And the scale of the chatter, the enormity of the number of voices, attracts the serious attention of the mainstream media who still have the power to anoint. Why? Because our society, which we like to think of as complex, has devolved into a very simple thing after all: a society which values counting above everything else, above all culture, above all humain attainment. We attach an elevated monetary value to integers, 1,2,3, when there's a consuming body attached to each one.

So where should that really original viewpoint (and it's not me, that's for sure) go for discovery? Thank your stars, or the generosity of trees, or the remaining tatters of the establishment, but there are still BOOKS, bro.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Long time no post

Sorry I've been out of touch lately. I've been revising the first draft of a novel, trying to get it done before I have to leave this place. What place? The house outside the village of Tesuque belonging to two friends of ours. Tesuque is an agglomeration of houses along a creek near Santa Fe, surrounded by tall trees and a remarkable amount of vegetation considering the semi-arid conditions nearby--and especially the multi-year drouth northern New Mexico has been suffering. Did I mention that it's been raining every day we've been here? It was a wet Indian Market in Santa Fe yesterday and the day before. And a cool one. Amazing. (Of course, we didn't go this year. For why, see the second sentence above.)

What makes this such a great place to work--other than the surrounding beauty and peace and clean air--is the fact that Tesuque is in a hole, a notch between foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains--the notch dug by the creek I mentioned earlier. So guess what? No cell phone connection. Our friends are away and we haven't been using their landline, and calls on it have been infrequent anyway, since all their friends know they're out of town. Pretty cool, huh?

Of course, we do have internet. But mine isn't rigged up to push messages or other interruptions through. That way I can work without distraction. And I did. I revised a 377 page book is two weeks. How good the revision is, who knows? But if it's bad, the fault won't lie with technology.

So now I've sent the MS out to a couple of first readers and I'll sit back and work hard on my real world job and wait for their comments. Do I have a publisher? Do I have an agent? No and no. Would you believe that I'm doing this for myself? For the adventure of finding out what the characters I've whomped up are doing with their lives, how they are coping with some very bad luck they've been handed (by me, darn it). But that's fiction, I guess.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

One Thing to Carry On

Now that all those electronic devices that we annoy each other with on airplanes are verboten, guess we’ll have to go back to books. Well, OKAY. (Not okay, actually, but more about that in a minute.)

Seriously, folks, we need to hear from you on what you’re reading, or what you plan to read on your next airplane flight. This must be escapist. No tomes on the Middle East; no copies of the Quran, or however it’s being spelled these days; no “end times” books. It’s gotta be strong enough to carry you mentally away from the slim metal cylinder that your physical self will be traveling in. Gotta be able to make you forget just how fragile the skin of that cylinder is, and how very far away indeed is the ground and all those you love.

Or, if you don’t want even to think about air travel right now, how about books for long car trips. Audiobooks. (Won’t be listening to any of those on the airplane, will we…or at least not on flights to Europe and back.)

You want to know what I’d recommend? Oh, dear. I was afraid you’d ask. Do you ever find that when someone asks you what you’ve read lately, every title flees from memory? Or who’s your favorite author and every name except, maybe, Ernest Hemingway, departs?

Well, here are a couple I’m working on, at present, so they’re sitting on the table beside me:

Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires, the Gourmet magazine editor’s account of her years as the restaurant critic for the New York Times which seems to be at least as much about the variety of disguises she assumed as the food she ate. (At the very least it will whet your appetite for when you arrive at your destination.) You’ll be too busy giggling to pay much attention to where you are.

Or Three Junes, by Julia Glass. Won the National Book Award a few years ago. I’ve just started this, but the voice is enveloping and the locales vary from Greece, to Scotland, Greenwich Village and Long Island (according to the back of the jacket). I’ll let you know later what I think.

And now that I think about it, I particularly enjoyed living in New York before World War II with James Thurber’s The Years with Ross. A funny thing about the New Yorker books—and there are enough of them to keep a person busy for months—each author is said by every other author to have invented most of the story. Well, this one will remind you how wonderful and eccentric human beings can be, when they’re not engaged in plotting physical mayhem upon each other.

We will regain a world like that someday, won’t we?

Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Pucker UP

That strange expression you're seeing on your face when you look in the mirror is the taste of sour grapes. Not yours. It's coming from Connecticut, but the flavor is so pungent we all can taste it as though we were its source.

Lieberman. I can hardly think the word without puckering up.

So he's going to run as an independent? Why should this surprise anyone? If countries act like none too bright ten year olds, why should we marvel when an old guy in politics does? He'll run as an independent, thinking he'll get those voters who supported him yesterday to vote for him again. Thinking, well, I have a chance to win.

Not, not, not. No chance, Lance.

Even though he was a big vote getter in 2002, when he was also running for VP. His 63% of the vote then won't translate. Everything was different--I don't have to enumerate (but I will). In addition to the above, it was the election right after 9/11--remember the mood? Do you feel that way today?

He'll get a few votes, sure. If he did amazingly well, he might get 30%, but that'll be enough. No, not to win. Just to put the Republican challenger into his Senate seat, if the Republican holds at 34%.

Dumb, Joe. We all know you've gotta have an ego big as, well, Connecticut, to be in politics, but I did think better of you. I hoped a little Al Gore would have rubbed off.

A Different Hammer

This time it was voters who did the Hammering--Lieberman. News flash: the war isn't popular. My own random sampling confirms it (who needs elections for that, right?). Democrats do NOT like this war. They don't like the way it's caused us to be perceived by the rest of the world. We used to be the good guys...They don't like all the killing and they have a really hard time with it, but they're not thrilled with what Israel's doing, either.

But I've got even more news for the White House: A lot of Republicans also don't like it. (Sort of like abortion: even the pro-choice people don't LIKE it. There are alternatives.) You know, folks, there aren't all that many neo-cons in the world, much less the GOP. You don't win elections with neo-cons. And there are a lot of Republicans who'll be voting for Democrats come election day. You watch.

Oh, this is a blog about books. Right. Have you checked out The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright? Front page review in last week's NYT. Educate thyself. Try Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger for a history of the game seen through Realpolitikal eyes.

Then, go get yourself a nice big Maalox, and a glass of your favorite brew and try to feel hopeful.

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Tom Delay: Secret Agent

Who has time to read a book when you can be following the larger than life, stranger than fiction saga of TD:SA? The Hammer ain't no secret, boys. But he's gonna be. He's gonna be a gee-whiz, all-fired Washington Lobbyist. And aren't they the biggest secrets of all, as they creep down the shrouded hallways, slip envelopes into pockets, and who knows what else? Heck, he's even gone and taken himself off the ballot for November. Who Hammered whom, there? Can you stand it? So, now, the question keeping me on the edge of my seat is: what tricks are they gonna pull to get that write-in candidate into Congress? Bring back Lyndon, that's what I say.