So the other night I was watching the Kennedy Center Honors for Outstanding Achievement in American something or other by an American thus-and-so (my high school French teacher used to say “thus and so”; I always found it quaint). I wanted to see the tribute to Bill T. Jones. Because I don’t know much about dance but I like Bill T.
I have always found ballet similar to basketball — impossible to watch on t.v., compelling in person. I can’t remember which ballet it was that I last saw performed by the New York City Ballet — Coppelia? Swan Lake? — something in which I thought well, for God’s sake, if it’s that hard to do, and it looks so hard to do when you’re doing it, don’t do it! It’s like the triple-axle, triple-salchow, triple-triple-death-spiral nonsense of the Winter Olympics — at a certain point, we just want the beauty, not the suffering.
So I haven’t seen Black Swan, nor will I. I saw Requiem for a Dream, by the same director, and I am only now getting over it.
But the beauty of the body in motion is not the topic here. It is that I was watching the Kennedy Center Honors for Outstanding Whatever — there was Oprah Winfrey, Jerry Herman, I think? (musical theater guy), Bill T. Jones, Merle Haggard (sweet!) and Paul McCartney. (Maybe someone else, but I’m proud of myself for remembering Jerry Herman, because I’m not a musical theater type, be gentle in your comments.)
So, was I thinking, but Paul McCartney is not American, so why is he receiving an American honor? (Truth be told, I was.) Was I thinking, why is Oprah acting like she invented Paul McCartney (although, for a little, as she clutched him and beamed, I was?) Was it, as some young woman younger than I am (and I am seriously younger than all of his children, and yet, and yet. He is ever and always a romantic ideal) groping him in proprietary pleasure when the kids on the stage launched into “Let It Be,” who the hell is that one, now? Yes, there was some of that.
But I what I was really thinking was, Paul McCartney finally looks like an old man. Not a decrepit old man, or a sad old man, but just, a man, near the age he probably, biologically, is.
So, I wondered, was Paul now the age of the actor who played his grandfather?
Nope. Paul is 69. Wilfrid Brambell at the time that A Hard Day’s Night was filmed was 52.
Originally published Saturday, January 8, 2011
Well, that was fun, wasn’t it!
For April is Poetry Month, I posted on my Facebook page one poem a day, for each day in April. Because of the attention-deficit nature of Facebook participants (I include myself), I included only a fragment of the poem, with the idealistic hope that particularly motivated readers would seek out the full poem for savoring. There is this device called Google. And, for now at least, there are still books.
This was the order I imposed on April.
Since April is National Poetry Month, for the nation of the United States, I leaned where possible to American poets — 26 out of 29. (The final post directed Facebook readers to this blog post.) I count T.S. Eliot as half-American because he was born and raised in St. Louis and didn’t become a British citizen until he was 39. Other British-American hybrids, but in the other direction (grew up there, moved here) are Judith Barrington and Denise Levertov. I included St. Louis poets because St. Louis is a city of poets. Also, I am from there. As are T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Joseph Stanton, Sara Teasdale, and Maya Angelou.
All poems were originally written in English. I favored contemporary poets, and when possible, living poets (who could benefit from your patronage). In the spirit of VIDA, I tried to ensure a gender balance (15 women, 14 men!) I leaned toward poems about poetry, writing or other art forms; I figured that was more user-friendly and conducive to the theme. For special days (e.g., the anniversary of the Civil War, Shakespeare’s birthday, Good Friday), I went with the best pertinent fragment. For birthdays, I let the birthday girl have her pick. And yes, I threw in a few poets because in addition to being gifted, entertaining, generous souls, they are also pals (Judith Barrington, Matthew Olzmann, Joseph Stanton.) The full list follows with the key:
A = American
M = Modern
C = Contemporary
In bold face – alive and writing. Google them! Buy their books, go see them at readings!
Maya Angelou – A, C – Phenomenal Woman
Judith Barrington – ½ A, C – The Musicians’ Seamounts
Charles Bukowski – A, M – So you want to be a writer
Billy Collins – A, C – The Norton Anthology of English Literature
e.e. cummings – A, M – somewhere I have never travelled
Emily Dickinson — A — Hope
Stephen Dunn – A, C – Charlotte Bronte in Leeds Point
Lynn Emmanuel – A, C — The Politics of Narrative: Why I am a Poet
T.S. Eliot – ½ A, M – The Waste Land
Deborah Garrison – A, C – A Working Girl Can’t Win
Jonathan Holden – A, C – How to Play Night Baseball
Marie Howe – A, C – The Moment
Clive James – C, L – Whitman and the Moth
Julia Spicher Kasdorf – A, C – First Gestures
Denise Levertov — ½ A, C – Come Into Animal Presence
Thomas Lynch – A, C – Refusing at Fifty-Two to Write Sonnets
Heather McHugh – A, C – A Ghazal for the Better-Unbegun
Marianne Moore – A, M – Poetry
Matthew Olzmann – A, C – Previous Theories of the Body
Dorothy Parker – A, M — Comment
Kay Ryan – A, C — quote from her interview in the Wall Street Journal, regarding poetry, as the Pulitzer winner this year
Christina Georgina Rossetti – Good Friday
Joseph Stanton – A, C – Vermeer’s “A Woman Weighing Gold”
Mark Strand – A, C – Eating Poetry
Mary Jo Salter – A, C – John Lennon
Sara Teasdale – A, M – Advice to a Girl
William Shakespeare – Sonnet 7
Walt Whitman – A – The Uprising
Paul Zarzyski — A, C – Matched Pairs
What are your favorites? Let me know. And I’ll see you on Facebook next April.
Originally published Saturday, April 30, 2011
Last week I attended the book bloggers convention, which closed out 2011’s BookExpo, and felt like something of an amateur compared to the hordes of genre-specific young people (mainly YA, middle grade and children’s reviewers) who had half a million followers and sophisticated streams of ARCs (advanced reader’s copies) coming in. As readers of this blog know, I review what I like, with an emphasis on literary fiction, writing about writing, and anything to do with Shakespeare.
One set of galleys I did get my hands on was a first novel, A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards, an accomplished work following Jinx, a woman of West Indian descent living in London as she finally comes to terms with the role she played in the murder of her mother fourteen years earlier. As the novel opens, the murderer has just been released from prison, but it will take Jinx the rest of the novel to similarly liberate herself.
“She was the only child of a poor, uneducated Montserratian land worker and his semi-literate wife,” Jinx writes of her mother. “Everything I know about them I learned from her, and the sum of everything she said was that they could not have worshipped God himself more than they worshipped the ground she walked on. Full stop.
She was too beautiful to make her own way to and from school at a time when every other child in the country was doing it, or to cook or clean or shop or carry, or even to amass a single useful life skill.”
Orphaned at 17, Jinx’s mother is rescued by Mr. Jackson, three times her age, who, “though half-blind from glaucoma . . . still had vision enough to see that my mother was too beautiful to weep broken-hearted, forlorn in her single bed . . . She was too beautiful for anything but the very best, and that was all she had because Mr. Jackson doted on her.”
This vivid passage, laid out early in the novel, encapsulates the complicated blend of anger, envy, love and bereavement that haunts and hampers Jinx. When Mr. Jackson (Jinx’s father) dies early in Jinx’s childhood, Jinx has her mother all to herself until she hits her teens and her mother meets up with the jealous, violent Berris. Jinx’s mother abandons her, first figuratively, in the thrall of passion and violence, and then literally, when she is killed. Having inherited neither her mother’s beauty nor her passivity, Jinx’s road to maturity and motherhood has played out far differently, and her coming to terms with what she has done and who she has become resolves itself in a surprisingly tender conclusion.
Originally published Friday, June 3, 2011
Well, this one was a shoe-in for me, seeing as I’m on the board of directors of a scrappy little Shakespeare Company, but still, I was surprised by how enchanted I was by The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown. Since my own recent novel is narrated by a Shakespeare-spouting heroine, I fell easily into the world of the family Andreas – dominated in a bookish, ethereal way, by the father, a renowned Shakespearean scholar who seldom converses in his own words if a quote from the Bard will suit the situation. (“Oh, Daddy, a Hamlet joke. How lovely. You shouldn’t have.”)
And so the daughters Andreas – Rosamund, Bianca and Cordelia – are all a bit, by any standards, weird. Brainy but passionate, deceitful but decent, peripatetic but a secret nester, respectively, all three women return to the house in the small Ohio town where they were raised to help their father cope with their mother’s sudden dire illness. Rosamund – Rose – like her father, a PhD, although in the far more logical field of mathematics, has never left the sphere of the university town she grew up in. Bianca – Bean – has fled back home from to avoid the consequences of succumbing to the variety of temptations in Manhattan. And Cordy, the baby, who has always been babied, is going to have a baby, without benefit of clergy, partner, money or job.
Narrated by the collective first person voice of the sisters, this book is a delightful, deft, witty read. The intimacy among the sisters is not cloying and the irritation and affection among them is heartfelt. I loved living in this world, and I didn’t want to leave it.
If you are one of the strange folk among us who is not a fan of Shakespeare, I beseech thee to have a go at this novel anyway if you are any of the following: a sister, a daughter, a reader, a sensualist, a baker, a clotheshorse, a mother, a cancer survivor, an academic, a Midwesterner familiar with the smell of ozone in the air just before a thunderstorm, a lover of summer in a small town, a lover of summer, a lunatic, a lover, or a poet.
Originally published Sunday, June 12, 2011
Some things you just can’t write about.
Some things, you spend a lifetime writing around.
RIP, Clarence Clemons. You’re one of the reasons I wrote at all.
(P.S. I stole this title from a headline on Salon.com. It was too good not to use.)
Originally published June 19, 2011
Many, many years ago, before there was an internet, before there were cell phones, odd people who became obsessed with factlets (a term I’ve invented for facts that interest only you) would, if they lived in New York City, pick up the phone and call the reference number for the New York Public Library. A librarian, a bona fide human being (businesses did not use voice mail in those days) would answer the phone, repeat your query, put you on hold, trot off to who-knew-where, and return with your answer. “The population of Montana is 800,000, ma’am,” a hushed, respectful voice would say. “Do you have any other questions?”
In that age, known to paleontogists as the early 80’s, I was in college and working at a small publishing company which published a newsletter about publishing. So, yes, plenty of oddballs there – who else would agree to the salary? – with lots of questions for the New York Public Library hotline who responded to answers of both the work-related (population, circulation) and of the who-wrote-the-book-of-love variety.
“I know that Hank Williams died in the back seat of a car,” I told one of these saintly librarians one day thirty years ago, the receiver of the phone cradled in my neck while I typed subscription renewal notices on an IBM Selectric I coveted. “But what I want to know is, what kind of car?”
“It was a robin’s egg-blue ’52 Cadillac with a Continental wheel,” the librarian whispered when he came back on the line, with, I thought, a gratifying level of excitement. That was the thing about those librarians. If you asked them something really odd, because you were odd, and a novelist (“Did Egypt have eggplant in Cleopatra’s time?”) they became information detectives: they wanted to know as much as you did.
Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the novel II’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive by Steve Earle. I read it this weekend. I would have read it in one sitting except that circumstances forced me to leave home, to gather food and drink, and to do all the other things that take one away from the urgency of story.
I have a complex relationship with Earle, further tangled by the fact that this relationship exists only in my head. Suffice to say, after much badgering on the part of my friend Linda, I have come to accept him as my own personal troubadour. I really liked his collection of short stories.
And I really like this novel.
We open the life of Doc, a defrocked hophead physician who stitches up the dealers and the johns and takes care of the whores in the slums of San Antonio in 1963. President Kennedy and his wife Yah-Kee (as she is known among the adoring illegal Catholic Mexican population of Texas) are soon to touch down on their way to Dallas.
Doc feels responsible for the death of Hank Williams – was it Doc’s shot of morphine which pushed Hank over the edge? – and then he comes to feel responsible for Graciela, the teenaged Mexican girl who is brought to him for a back-alley abortion and then abandoned and then … well, I can’t tell you.
This novel is fantastically imaginative, compassionate, engaging and American. I think if you read it, you will know what I mean by that, and appreciate it.
Originally published Sunday, June 26, 2011
Because the novel I’m writing now focuses on World War II, I have read a lot of literature and fiction about the period. I have set up another website, which has taken up most of the spare writing time not been devoted to the novel.
You can find it here:
Because the novel I’m writing now focuses on World War II, I have been living in my own little bubble recently. So when Kirsten Ogden, who I met at Kenyon, announced a participatory Facebook-blogging-prompt-a-thon, I joined in. You can find her blog here:
Stay tuned for daily updates! Ho ho ho!
Originally published Thursday, December 1, 2011