Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Shards from the Kaleidoscope



The Emperor's New Clothes

Horrible for aspiring literary writers yet delicious for the satirist is the evidently newsworthy fact that topless model "Jordan" has published a second novel called Crystal. "'It begins: "Oh my God, look at the queue!" Crystal exclaimed, taking in the long line of wannabes which snaked out of the London hotel and halfway down the road.'" Adam Lusher reports that Crystal's pursuit of a singing career has sold far more copies than the entire Mann Booker list put together. (Three have sold less than two thousand copies; two are still under the three-thousand mark. One hates to think what the numbers would have been without the help of an important prize.)

The idea of a half-naked model arriving for her book launch party in Cinderella's crystal carriage and escorted by a bevy of handsome fellows is an almost perfect image of the state of the Land of Books in our time: truly, the successful Emperor and Empress of Books must have no clothes and look darn good in her relatively-new birthday suit (surgically and cosmetically enhanced, of course!) To be strictly truthful, I must admit that it's alledged she wore a dress on the occasion, but who wants to be strictly truthful in this context? After all, she acknowledges help in what is called the authorship of the book, so she does not appear to be so very strict an author.

Good news

For the past few months, I've been chucking half-read books out the nearest window. I began to believe that I was now unable to finish reading a novel. Yesterday I went down to that exemplary used book store, Willis Monie's, and bought a book for R, Kafka's The Castle for me, and David Grossman's See Under: Love. And I am reading happily. I even stayed up too late and felt exhausted today. This made me feel oddly pleased. I'm still a reader.

Sight of the week

On Wednesday night an enormous peach of a harvest moon was hovering over soft blue trees when I went to pick up N from football. The little boys--and a few little girl footballers--drifted out of the clouds that had settled on the playing fields. Many of them wore team shirts that appeared the same orangey shade as the moon in the dusk. Everything was simplified: twilight blue, the moon-peach color, the white clouds clinging to the playing field, the green grass. Utterly fetching.

Photo credit

Diane Slocum, member, Friends of the Library, Huntington Library, Oneonta. A cropped version of this picture ran in our local Cooperstown Crier, along with an article by young writer Dan Pelletier. He took a good deal more trouble with the article than most people do, and has garnered praise--people say that the quotes "sound like me." If you've ever been interviewed for a feature, you know that accuracy in quotes is rather unusual and worth saluting. Dan is an M. F. A. student at Goddard College who freelances for the Crier and works at Hartwick College; you may see his stories and novels-to-be some day.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

A Little Man of Letters

Just now a little man with an accent drifted into my mind. He was perspiring but did not take off the black raincoat over his dark suit. I’m not sure whether the coat looked shabby or was merely smeared with chalk dust on the arms. I was trying to place the accent, unfamiliar to me as a child; it would not have been French because I had moved from Louisiana and knew a smattering of French, learned from neighbor children. Somehow I imagine that he must have been Spanish or Italian.

I was like him in a way. In the landscape of Kansas, I was profoundly strange. Nobody who talked like me went to Washington Elementary. I was a drawling, sweet-talking astonishment in an era when few people had televisions or traveled far on vacation. Nor did many people move to the heart of the country, although there were a few families who had come from elsewhere—my father had come to teach at Fort Hays State, and so did others. This foreign man in his black suit and I were both as strange as Peggy, a pretty little girl in my class with tiny stubs for fingers. Her father had fashioned rings to fit her fingers, a thing that struck her classmates as cunning and a bit magical.

Perhaps I am wrong; perhaps I have made the man in the black coat foreign in memory. Perhaps we were both strange in having a love for words. He was a traveling penmanship teacher: a circuit rider preaching the Word. In his briefcase were brilliant colored chalks. Never again have I seen sticks of chalk quite so jewel-like. He especially liked to scatter rubies and emeralds, and he reminds me now that memory is a rich and myth-making thing.

I was the penmanship teacher’s pet because I had the most wretched handwriting in the class, perhaps in the entire school. He took me on as a special project. I can remember spending hours in the tiny pink house across from the ball park, laboriously writing the alphabet and then sliding the transparent Palmer alphabet card over my letters to check them. By year’s end my handwriting matched the card.

I wish that I could remember his name. We moved away; we were always moving because a Georgia sharecropper’s son can’t stay still too long. He has to see the world. Of course, it’s hard for a child to remember all the names when they change so often.

The penmanship teacher would come into the classroom while we were somewhere—recess, it might have been—and would have partially written some motto on the board by the time we filed to our seats. He had a lovely hand with Spencerian tendencies and liked to lavishly elaborate the capital letters. His arm moved freely, the decorative flourishes streaming behind his fingers. It seems impossible to recapture a world in which children play out-of-doors or read and hardly know television—where they are held spellbound by a dark-eyed man with a stick of sapphire chalk.

Photo credit: I have borrowed the image of Plymouth Schoolhouse from http://www.travelks.com, the Kansas Travel and Tourism website. The school dates from 1874 and was moved to campus of Fort Hays State in 1977. Penmanship was one of the subjects taught there.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Val / Orson

"Alice was now tall enough to reach the top of the little glass table, and so at last she picked up the book. The neatly printed label attached by grocer's string read, 'Buy Me.'" --from Alice's Secret Adventures in Wonderland

My limited edition novella, Val / Orson, is forthcoming from Peter Crowther and Nick Gevers' P. S. Publishing in the U. K. (Thanks to publisher and editor for requesting a manuscript!) Although the book won't be out until the end of 2008, now would be a splendid time to order, because the first class or international shipping costs will be free until the end of this month:

Val / Orson page: http://www.pspublishing.co.uk/cat/vo.asp

Special Offer: Free Postage on all pre-orders until September 31st
To mark our major schedule update announcement we're making this special offer until the end of September 2007: Free Postage on all pre-publication orders placed before October 1st 2007! That's right, if you pre-order any items from our list of forthcoming titles and complete your order by September 31st (full payment has to reach us by that date to qualify) then we won't charge you our usual postal rates for those books. The book(s) will be sent out as soon as they're published by our usual first class / international airmail carriers.

I'm thinking about changing the title back to Valorson.... That combines the names of the twins into one and also makes a pun.

This novella or short novel (whichever you please) is planted on the boundary line between what's commonly called realism and the realm of irrealism. That is, though the setting is contemporary--the story takes place among (and on, very much on!) California redwoods--and events take place in the realm of possibility, the tale has an aura of the marvelous because it makes use of legendary materials by borrowing threads from the story of a pair of famous twins, Valentine and Orson.

Of course, I don't believe in realism; there's nothing about a book that's not the sheerest fabulation, because the fabric of words is such very different stuff from a yard of muslim or velvet. It may feed me, but it will never be an egg.

Want to know more about the legendary source? Here's a brief introduction: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valentine_and_Orson that mentions source and uses by other writers. I snagged the Nancy Ekholm Burkert poem-and-picture book when it came out from FSG, and it's quite lovely. (One of my former editors there, Robbie Mayes, told me that the model for the handsome twin boys was her son.)

Two of my long stories are also forthcoming from P. S. Publishing's magazine, Postscripts. Drunk Bay will be out by Christmas; Rain Flower Pebbles will appear in 2008.

Photo credits are due www.sxc.hu/ and the following: for the sequoias in snow, Vlad Romascanu of Montreal, Quebec, Canada; for sequoias in mist, Marcin Jochimczyk of Sosnowiec, Slaskie, Poland. Many thanks!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A story, a prize, a summer

PHOTO: "Cloistered Assemblage" paperweight by Paul Stankard, glassblower and lover of words. I'm drawn to his floating orbs and tiny root people (look carefully at that tangle of roots) and mystical blossoms. For more, go to http://www.paulstankard.com/. Yes, you may send me one!

BRODKEY'S CEIL

The house had very large windows that went down quite close to the floor. These windows had drawn shades that were an inhumanly dun-yellow color, a color like that of old lions in the zoo, or the color of corn tassels, of cottonwood leaves after they have lain on the ground a while—that bleached and earthen clayey white-yellow.

Some time ago—I don’t remember when—I thought to rid myself of this sort of repetition of metaphor, rhythmical and hypnotic but redundant. It seemed to me a sort of tic of our time. The more metaphors one piled up, the more detailed and yet more diffuse the original subject became. They had no function; there was no adequate reason for their existence.
But in Harold Brodkey’s story, “Ceil,” that sort of repetitive piling-up of detail that cannot finally lead one to a single clear vision is the whole being of the story—structure, goal, impossible desire. The narrator’s struggle to bring into focus the mother who died when he was a baby is a heaping up of detail that cannot call her into being. It is all “useless significance.”

It seems that all flaws are usable.

By the end of the story, one finds that even living women are difficult to know. The narrator's gleanings, quoted from the woman who raised him, give way to a comments about her by a third woman. Ultimately, the truth about women—or, indeed, about any human being—proves slippery.

One of the things about the story that I find interesting is the way Brodkey moves from two tiny paragraphs: “I was born in her bedroom, at home” and “I feel her, I feel her moods” to a thing that the narrator believes to be a memory. A train passes and shakes the house.

One thing that interests me here is inheritance. The description of the train with its build-up and falling-away strikes me as one of those passages that owe their existence to Mark Twain’s famous description of the arrival and departure of a steamboat in Huckleberry Finn. In part that may because I’ve written a description of a train that reminded me of Twain. But if you are an American writer, you very likely can’t help remembering Twain when any human conveyance arrives with great bustle and departs, leaving a lull in its wake.

I think of Hemingway’s claim that all American literature descended from Mr. Mark Twain.

The long train passage appears to have some sort of correspondence with the simple statement that the narrator was born in the house. The steady shaking that moves with “quickening rhythm” toward “unremitting noise,” “battering waves,” and a state where the house “throbs in an aching shapelessness” is an analogue to his mother’s body and the uncontrollable rhythms of childbirth. All these details—so clear when placed together—are submerged in the larger description of the train. Afterward, in the next section, he remembers the country smell of the house. Then he recalls his mother’s torso in a print dress. The next section is the one quoted above, beginning with “the house had very large windows.” Juxtaposition makes one read the country house as a parallel the country-loving Ceil. Likewise, the closed-in house suggests an analogue to the “isolated” mother.

People are link-making creatures. The less “bald” the links are, the more satifying it is to leap the chasm.

***
SHAARA FROLICS

My penpal Howard Bahr has won The Michael Shaara Award for his novel, The Judas Field (Holt, 2006). Since most news on the literary front is discouraging—the decline of book review sections and the death of reading and poor sales seem to be the focus of book-related headlines these days—I feel very glad for this piece of news. It’s curious that Howard, my penpal Philip Lee Williams, and I have all won the Shaara. We’ll have to chalk it up to good taste and put up a clubhouse sign; I’d like a treehouse somewhere.

***
"MY SUMMER VACATION"

Summer has flown. Among other things, B and R experienced a certain amount of gainful employment. N attended a prodigious number of day camps and one away camp. While he was there, I went with R to the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont. She was under their age limit, so I served as chaperone and sushi provider for a week—went to Steve Bissette’s movie night but otherwise kept my head down except at the end of the day, when I popped in to look at the work done. We stayed at the down-at-the-heels but pleasant Hotel Coolidge, just down the street. After it rained, a fire hose hung off the roof, discharging water in great arterial bursts. It was my easiest week of the summer. I worked on a book, walked, and had picnics.

At the end of the summer, the children and I zoomed off to North Carolina—to Cullowhee and afterward to Aiken, South Carolina and then to Sunset Beach, all with my mother; I regret that I didn’t make it to Chapel Hill, as I wanted to see many people. But it was lovely to spend time with my mother and one of my cousins, and my husband flew down for a stay at the shore. R was stung by jellyfish. How long does it take for that irritation to go away, I wonder? I had two especially grand days for poems at the beach, and came home with six new keepers. Good fishing!

***
FAE MALANIA

For those of you who were interested in Fae Malania and the reprint of her book, Fae is in the hospital. She is 88 now, a time when hospital visits are not so much of a surprise. Yesterday she seemed much better. I smuggled N over for a visit, as he is good for spreading cheer.

***
AT HUNTINGTON LIBRARY

Is it possible to talk about books and do a reading without meeting some young, aspiring writer? Only if he or she is shy and doesn’t speak, I suppose. I like talking to them but also feel a kind of sadness, since the path through publishing can be so thorny. One wants to warn them about peril and black slough and promises that are only a fine glitter. Perhaps their way of publishing will be altogether different from mine, given the flux of things.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Huntington Library, Oneonta

Remember that snowed-out talk-and-reading, the one when we had more than a yard of snow? I'm hoping for no blizzards or cataclysmic downpours on Monday the 10th at 7:00 p.m. at the Huntington Library in Oneonta. I'm glad the library ran the title in the newspaper, because my notes for the old talk died with the computer! Against Brokenness: Gusto and Strength in Poetry and Fiction. I'll yack and read some poems and a few excerpts from a just-finished novel. Afterward, Q & A.

Picture credit: this old picture of the Huntington, pre-addition, was taken from www.oneontahistorian.com.

I'll be back here afterward, despite deadlines and next week's visit from the Village Tax Assessor Man! In New York State, that's a fearsome thing.