Those that know me, know that I have a place in my heart for Norway. Sure, the family I married into can trace their roots to the said country. I was lucky enough to study Norwegian under a FLAS while at IU and still to this day I believe the Norge Polar Bear hockey sweater to be amoungst the best out there. So given their current total count lead and all this snow making me think of the mountains of Montana, I give you Halvar Roll’s Fjellet i mars (The mountains in March):
Fjellet i mars The mountains in March
Den store vinterrosen The great rose of winter
ruller over himmelen rolls across the heavens
og setter fyr pa krystallene and sets the crystals on fire
med isnende kyss. with icy kisses.
You know you’ve been spoiled with far too many soft winters in recent years when you hit late January and you’re thinking, hey all this snow has gotta stop sometime soon. But here I sit by the narrows of the Detroit River with another snowfall on its way here and still daydreaming of warmer and sunnier days. But these days aren’t all bad. Perhaps as a writer these should be counted among some of true gifts.
I can hear it said right now “A gift you say?” But the fact is that with the winter going the way it has been been their has been much less playtime beyond the warm and friendly home office than usual. Which basically translates to a lot of quieter times reading or contemplating the nature of the universe in your living room recliner or could-be-more-comfortable desk chair in your office. For me, this has been somewhat the case. With a newborn at home and piecing together a salary to take care of the family out of three very awesome part-time jobs has often left me at a loss for time on my creative writing projects. But this snow and persistent winter, well it has opened some pathways to revise some old work and get down to some old fashioned reading.
These means that, yes, some of my work is currently making its first rounds to the various open submissions. Editing and revision time means that finally some of the rougher stuff has become polished enough to see daylight and hopefully get to share the page (either print or digital) with the work of other fine artists out there. So to those of you kind readers and editors that are currently having this new work forced on you, please try to enjoy the time that winter has carved out for me and my work. You must also know that I’m working through some Indiana withdrawals and some new found hyper sensitive explorations of southeastern Michigan and southwestern Ontario. With your help, maybe I’ll get through them.
by Brian Kimberling
Pantheon Books, 2013
Let’s just start with a couple of biases upfront with this book. My wife is a massive bird nut and maybe, just maybe, I’ve caught a little bit of the warm fuzziness that accompanies this particular love affair. Next, that Snapper finds its foundational sense of place and of being firmly locked in the Hoosier state, I simply couldn’t ignore this particular book while browsing ye old eBook catalog for my local library. I mean, I lived in the crossroad state for the better of a decade and continue to hold a deep affection of the place and many of its people. All of this means it was a natural must read for me.
As far as introductions to a writers work, Kimberling does some damned fine work with Snapper. It is work that is good enough for me not only to write this post (there much less memorable books that haven’t quite merited one of these posts), but good enough for me to encourage this as a must on any bibliography or reading list of literature of the Midwest. I say that because of deep and powerful roots from which Kimberling casts his characters and their story. The title of the novel itself harkens to that quintessential Midwestern monster of the snapping turtle.
Set primarily in southern and central Indiana, Snapper’s characters and storylines are pulled from the earthy and very much peopled places like Evansville, Bloomington, and Indianapolis. The novel itself acts as a series of important glimmers of big events in the narrator Nathan’s life. Nathan is a professional birdwatcher who finds a frame for his recognizable but engaging life story in the wild and people places of Indiana. It is a well-populated space of Hoosiers ranging from college professors to prisoners to the working class of the state. The bits that make up the stories and memorable moments of this novel come from the mosaic of people that make up this unique slice of the American Midwest.
Kimberling does a lot very right in this novel. He manages to build a very accurate representation of his home state, craft that construction well in the experiences of an interesting and engaging narrator in Nathan, and he manages to connect all the dots well in the novel. This basically means he will tell you about coal pit swimming holes and the history of Santa Claus, Indiana all for a purpose. Basically, the back story here is wonderfully crafted and weaved into the plot. I do sometimes wonder if stronger or more thorough investigations of certain threads such as Lola would have worked better. Those attentions might be interesting in some sense, but would likely change the overall picture being weaved here. In short, this is well crafted story that shares some very worthy things with its audience.
All of these glimmers and facts about the lives and places of the south and central Indiana leave you with that haunted spirit that I so often felt during my time their. In so much that Nathan feels haunted enough to speak of this novels stories and places, they too are likely to leave any reader with that sleepy sense of longing that we all feel when life draws us away from the places we love.
It’s been a little while since I took a crack at this blog, so some forgiveness might be order from whatever audience I might have left. But you will hopefully be a little more understanding once I lay out some of the reasons for this absence. Shortly after the previous post my wife and I discovered that we were expecting a little one in our lives and we started to have to do all that planning that parents-to-be must do. Most specifically, we had to consider what was best for our budding family and take stock in the place that we had chosen for our home. After considerable deliberation we came to conclusion that we to pull up stakes and relocate to my hometown of Windsor, Ontario, Canada. To say that the current political climate in the United States, or at least the one in Indiana, played no role in that decision would be a lie. The gun play, consolidation of economic growth in the hands of the few, the erosion of workers’ rights, and the disgusting condition of medical coverage all loomed large in our decision. As Canadian citizen, I could find no better time to end my great American experiment than with the approaching birth of our child.
So after selling our home and leaving a group of wonderful and inspirational people in our adoptive Hoosier home we set up shop in the Southside of Windsor. It has been hectic in the way that coping with immigration (for the Mrs.) and setting up shop in a new community can be. But it has been one that has paid its dividends well in innumerable little ways that need not be explored in great depth here. Perhaps, it would be best to simply to say that the next chapter began here a few months back. Being so close to the beautiful and resilient city of Detroit and the vibrant and optimistic American energy that the proximity brings with it will help to fuel that next chapter. The work and general life schedule appears to be slowing down enough to catch a breath and continue much of the book review work and other passing thoughts that I once posted here much more freely. Look forward to a much more engaged site, one that explores that new world of work, literature, art, and perhaps a little parenthood.
by Ignazio Silone (translated from Italian by Gwenda Davis and Eric Mosbacher)
Penguin Books, 1946
I first have to admit that I’ve been on little bit of an early 20th century literature kick. This particular novel is part of that kick. So upon finding a rather well worn copy of this particular title at one of our local used bookstores I knew it would have to enter the rotation, so to say. This particular edition of Silone’s Bread and Wine is rather shoestring looking and has somehow managed to weather the better part of a century to find a home in my collection. Physical status of this book aside, Silone’s work provided some clear moments of wonderful writing and a rather engaging story.
Ignazio Silone is the pen name of Secondino Tranquilli. Tranquilli was from the village of Aburzzi and a founding member of the Italian Communist Party in 1921. It was a connection and a true passion that eventually forced him out of Italy in 1930. His does have a sizable amount of literary achievements in his mother tongue, it seems that a good many of those have gone rather forgotten over the years. What you see a lot of though in Bread and Wine is the result of this life, the struggle of one political ideology in the face of an oppressive fascist regime.
Bread and Wine‘s main character is Pietra Spina, a revolutionary of the same persuasion as the author, who returns home to Italy after a prolonged absence or exile. For the better part of the novel he assumes the identity of Catholic priest in a small mountain village and becomes embroiled in the trials and tribulations of the peasant residents there. A great deal of the novel could be considered philosophical, pondering questions about religion and resistance and the sufferings of the Italian working class. It is perhaps in those philosophical moments that this particular novel does its best work. The wonderful portions of those philosophical sections are clearly enhanced by the characters that Silone uses to populate this story. Simply put, this is a philosophy that comes across as decidedly human and concrete because of the world that Silone manages to create here.
The action of the novel is well divided between Rome and the countryside of Silone’s youth. It is a story partially told in movements between places and the connections that a growing connected world has begun to push on the contemporary world of Spina. The novel’s view of fascist Italy is a big picture view of Italy where there is a decided division between the timelessness of a people connected to the land and a modern industrial world rub up against each other. It is a fascinating view is so much as it begs questions behind motivations and how much our well entrenched ideas of the never-ending present stack up against more ancient ways of looking at our world. In short Bread and Wine could and should trigger questions of about Silone’s contemporary human condition as well as our own.
All of that talk of philosophy doesn’t take away from the story here. It is strong at moments and I walked away from the book with the idea that I had experienced the life of at least one person of importance. As a reader I was genuinely into the idea of whether or not Spina would make it of fascist Italy in one piece. You could even see the strength of scenic level writing at work in many places. At moments you can feel the worlds inhabited by the peasants and working class people of Silone’s Italy. But it is the philosophical aspects that seem to rise to the surface most easily with this work. If you’re looking a bit of storytelling augmented by some excellent pondering on some of life’s bigger aspects and you can find a copy of this work, it is a worthwhile read.
Hairstyles of the Damned
by Joe Meno
Punk Planet Books, 2004
Let me start by admitting a couple of things. First off, I really dig coming of age novels. Yeah there is that big bold German term for this genre, but let’s just call it the coming
of age story. And secondly, I had opportunity to listen to Joe Meno read at the Winter Wheat Literary Conference a few years back and missed him. To my defense, the pizza, beer, and company in Bowling Green, Ohio were among the best I’ve had. But still I missed out on hearing a writer that today I really dig.
But I digress, because this posting should be about Meno’s 2004 novel Hairstyles of the Damned. Joe Meno is one of those literary fiction guys who gets some major love in the Midwest because of his strong Chicago connections. But it is a love doesn’t tend to spread very far outside of the Midwestern literary circles. Which is sad because he does such an excellent job in capturing the characters and lives surrounding the region. Hairstyles of the Damned is the point in case for this skill.
The novel takes us to the Chicago land area in the early 1990s and follows the life of the narrator, Brian Oswalt, a Catholic high school kid through two years worth of time. Much of it explores the relationship between Brian and his best friend Gretchen, a tough as nails punk rock girl, who finds herself in a similar outcast position as Brian. Perhaps most interestingly, this connection is explored through the music of the time. Well the music, that is, of the harder variety. You know the type that the want-to-be-rock-star types in high school always strutted about talking about. This is a punk rock novel after all. And Meno does well in capturing all the periphery type stuff that goes with being young and in love with music. The mixed tapes, the symbolism of individual songs, the identification of one’s self with the larger things you always believe rock stars were putting together for you. Really, a lot of it is the stuff that makes or made you feel cool. And cool is something that Brian as outsider seems very focused on being in Meno’s book. Perhaps something that anyone who has ever been considered an outsider has felt like.
Like most great coming of age pieces of fiction, Meno’s novel explores his world from the outsider’s perspective. Brian Oswalt is by no means as much of the outsider Salinger’s Caufield, the Meno manages to foster a connection by way of both his adherence to music (from Guns’n’Roses to Danzig to Morrissey) as well as his controlled and highly believable interiority of his characters. You can feel that sort of raw angst that teenagers get over confused or misplaced love and affection. Brian is essentially a lonely kid who wants to forge some connection to those around him. Gretchen might be that connection for him but the litany of loving the wrong people runs through the story, perhaps mirroring a sad fact of life for every outsider and insider alike.
In the very least you should give this book read because the movie version is currently in pre-production. The fact of the matter is that you could be cool before cool in the way that Meno may have envisioned Brian Oswalt in his teenage world.
Cakes and Ale or The Skeleton in the Cupboard
by W. Somerset Maugham
Penguin Books, 1979
Let’s start by saying something about this slim little book: I had never heard of it nor its author before coming across it. And it was in the fine shelves of Indy Reads Books bookshop a couple of weeks back that I found this particular book. I picked up likely because of the name or the cover or any one of the numerous reason that consumers usually grab items like bottles of wine. And like many bottles of wine I’ve picked up by chance (Fat Bastard for example), I was pretty satisfied with this shortish novel.
W. Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale was originally released in the UK in 1930. It takes it title from the famous line Shakespeare’s Sir Toby Belch to Malvolio in Twelfth Night, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” At only 202 pages, this particular printing was a pretty quick read. It is ostensibly a biography of a fictional writer (Edward Driffield) talked through by the first person narrator, William Ashendan. Ashendan is well to do, getting along in age, and shared some of his youth with Driffield and his first wife. While the book could be considered a sort of outsider’s biography, non-biography, of this famous fictional writer in Edward Driffield, you might more appropriately call a greater proportion of the book to be centered on the first wife of Driffield, Rosie.
The story opens with the narrator being approached by a Mr. Alroy Kear about getting information for the recently deceased Edward Driffield. The novel and its narrative then unfold in series of events and memories surrounding the lives of the Driffields and the points at which they intersect with Ashendan. The majority of the narrative is nestled between 1880s and the 1910s and spans the streets of London and the sleepy seaside English town of Blackstable. The events are more like a ramble through the countryside on a bicycle to the extent that at moments you can and do feel lost without a sort of temporal map. Sometimes you can’t be all that sure you are in the narrative present or past, but maybe that’s part of the point that Maugham is working towards. What place do biographies and writing have in the life of the author and those around them. Perhaps it is there that Cakes and Ale really succeeds as a book.
If anything beyond the simple interest that mystery of a life lived being offered, Somerset does let Ashendan expound on some absolutely wonderful thoughts on writing, poetry, and the lives that writers lead. In one portion of the book he talks about poetry being the most elite of the literary enterprises: “The crown of literature is poetry. It is its end and aim. It is the sublimest activity of the human mind.” In others he chats over the purpose or end goal of literature. And in perhaps the most personal diatribe regarding writing he talks at length about the writer’s life declaring at diatribe’s end that “[The writer] is the only free man.” Despite all the story telling and involvement with characters it is these glimmers of literary reflection that to me make this book a particular little gem.
by Natsume Soseki
translated by Edwin McClellan
Gateway Editions, 1957
Original published in 1914 in Japan and to much acclaim, Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro helped to mark the end of the Meiji Period (1868-1912) in the country. The word “kokoro” is translated as heart in English. Because of this we have to assume that novel explores what truly lies at the hearts of the characters involved. But I will tell that it must and does speak to larger, more society driven aspects regarding generations and the secrets or stories that come to define them.
Soseki’s novel is broken up into two narrative sections. The first and by far the largest of the two sections is the set in the contemporary world of the novel’s publication. The narrative is an university student who is the process of questioning his life and future. These questions are set against the backdrop of his meeting and subsequent relationship with an older man of the previous generation who he refers to as Sensei. The second section, which ends the novel, follows the narration of Sensei’s life prior to meeting the initial narrator. Through their relationship (as teacher to student or mentor to mentee) we see the manner in which life and anxiety changes but also remains quite similar between generations. However, the focus of Kokoro remains decidedly upon Sensei and his life and secrets regardless of narrative focus.
Perhaps. it’s best to say that Soseki’s novel is most interested in the inevitability of delay in it’s characters’ lives. It’s as if the world around them is constructed in a never ending sense of waiting. And in this waiting there is sense that the next great event, the next great moment to begin the next phase of life, the ability to break free from the muddled up mess of both the present and the past is just one, maybe two moments away from the time the characters inhabit. The transition between worlds is perhaps the best way to put this sentiment. It is a transition that seeks to resolve the errors of past generations (those represented by Sensei and to some extent the first narrators’ family) and move the present into the modern promise of life after that past. The waiting for this transition most typically comes in association with death. You couple take a page or five from the Golden Bough and say that in death of the previous generation there is a hope of renewal and the possibility for the characters to pull themselves from the hangover grayness of their modern world. The world of Soseki’s Kokoro is one that seems to be hinged upon the transition between generations. (for historic Meiji Japan to a more modern Industrial Japan) For readers, this waiting is a poignant sentiment that actually helps to drive the narrative forward.
The narrative is not crafted alone on this concept of waiting. There is a large aspect of Kokoro’s story that rests on the idea of mystery , or perhaps more accurately said secrets. These secrets draw us through the story as readers. Our mainstay narrator is concerned with the back story of Sensei and what type of past could have made this man that the novel itself has become so taken with. Soseki does a wonderful job in terms of building of our compassion for both the narrator and Sensei and because of it, the plot flows through what would be a relatively uneventful period of time. We are drawn in not because of cataclysmic events of Hollywood proportions but because we are lead to fundamentally care about what makes these characters tick. And it is the revelation of these secrets that the story ends on. That revelation comes from the voice of the character that it must (Sensei) and excels in most every way of settling all the anxieties and questions purposed by the primary narrative thrust of the novel.
On the whole, I must say the Soseki’s Kokoro stands up well to the test of time. It does so because it’s character driven approach to it’s plot that allows to ignore the mundane aspects of historical context and allows a view into what it simply means to human in those transitional periods of our existence. Soseki sets up the type of framework that you could argue has been used successfully in only a handful of novels that have been preoccupied with mentor/mentee relations. (see Kerouac’s On the Road, Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, and Palaniuk’s Fight Club) In that Kokoro gets so much of this framework right, this is novel worth another read in our contemporary world.
Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys: Poverty, Labor, and the Making of Modern American Poetry
by John Marsh
University of Michigan Press, 2011
For those who know anything about me as a writer know that I most fundamentally believe that poetry (if not all writing) must and does have a social contract with the society that it comes from. Now, that social contract can affect positive and negative effects on the group it comes out of. Positive in the sense that it actively engages with social issues and negative in that it ignores the world around them. (and often borders on self-indulgent trite – Billy Collins, I’m coming for you) And with much of the “award-winning” poetry that comes out nowadays tends to fall into the negative/ignorant aspect of self-indulgent poetics it is refreshing that any book that comes out looking at modern American poetry roots to plant themselves firmly in the vestiages of this positive social contract.
John Marsh explores the intrinsic links between the early 20th century labor strife in the US with the key poetic figures of T.S. Eliot, Carl Sandberg, and William Carlos Williams. Marsh illustrates the manner in which historical context for the period (most notably the Paterson and other General Strikes) created “spark” moments for these writers as well as their day-to-day interactions with many of America’s poor and underprivileged. These societal inequalities often become for these canonical poets the vehicle by which they explore the shared world between them, their readers, and their fellow citizens.
And none of this is say that all of these poets responded in a socially responsible manner (such could be the argument in T.S. Eliot’s case), but the fact of the matter is that they responded in some way. They understood the connection their privilege as educated men, and as published writers, to craft something that speaks to the human condition. Outside of certain publications (most notably say The Sun, PEN, Grist, and Construction) there is a decided attention played to the trite lines of men (and women) like Billy Collins. (I always tend to think about his piece “Suddenly” here or whatever other generic “I-Look-Out-My-Window-And-Say-Haven’t-You-Noticed-Crap” that he has put out this month or week.
Marsh walks us through the various means by which poets have engaged with their social contracts and have done so to illustrate all that has become great in the American spirit as illustrated by this poetry. And in doing this he shows us what an insightful piece of poetry can and should do as well as maybe, just maybe, shine a little light on some of society’s contemporary inequality woes.
What can I say other than I’ve been a sucker for graphic novels ever since I was a teenager rustling up Sandman comics on Wynadotte Street back in the day in Windsor. And given the chance to finally hit up the newest publication by the well known artist/writer Jason Shinga, I couldn’t resist.
For those of you who don’t know Jason Shinga, he is an American Cartoonist and writer based out of Oakland, CA. Shinga graduate with a degree in Math from Berkley and has used this training to create comics that are known for their puzzles and non-traditional narrative structures. He has won multiple awards for his work including the 2007 Stumptown Comics Award in Best Writing for his 2007 Bookhunter.
Empire State: A Love Story (Or Not) is a fairly strong addition to Shinga’s nice catalog to date. It’s strength comes in large-part due to its selection of palette and the non-linear narrative structure of the story. The colors in the graphic novel are mood setting and in that they are less than realist. But, mind you, who comes to a graphic novel looking for realism? Particularly so, when you deal with the modern fairy tale stuff of a sort-of-love story.
The plot follows a late-twenties-still-stuck-in-my-hometown Jimmy and his first trip across country (from Shinga’s hometown Oakland) to New York City. And the love story has to do with a cooler-than-me gal named Sara. Sara has moved out to NYC to pursue a writing career and through letters and phone calls back to Jimmy in Oakland, she convinces him to come out to visit. The story follows Jimmy as heads east to find Sara and does a lot of reflection on where they have come from. There is a clear bildungsroman motif here and one that works well with the unconventional love narrative. There is also some play with Jimmy’s Asian American heritage and Sara’s Jewish heritage.
On the whole the story feels a little too short. There is a lot of airiness between slides that could use some more fleshing out. And mind you, this might just be showing my biases towards more traditional written fiction than the type(s) that follow in graphic novels. I tend to consider stories in the paper and words type production. Is it worth it, this new book by Shinga? On the art alone, I’d have to say yes.