From a review of Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde by Pam Rosenthal:

marilyn1How did a perpetually frightened and insecure young woman summon up such powers of illusion? Out of what fathomless need did an illegitimate child who spent years in foster homes command so much attention and so much love, even 40 years after her death? How, out of a series of doomed affairs and marriages and some not-very-good scripts, did she manage to tell us so much about sex? And what kept her from ever satisfying her own needs for love and respect?

Oates presents her story as a tale of the grotesque, a horror story akin to Stephen King’s “Carrie,” another book about an unhappy child with a mad mother. Like most horror stories, “Blonde” is a tale of freakish overcompensation, impossible wishes granted, awesome power ill-used, demons finally undefeated — the story of an injured child who can’t be healed, even by the love of the millions. There’s nothing supernatural in it, of course, unless you consider the immense sway that movie images and technology hold over all our imaginations.

Unlike genre horror fiction, though, “Blonde” is a huge, incantatory, expressionistic work that doubles back on itself to retell stories again and again, building its themes and variations through a seeming infinity of retakes. Description approaches hallucination. The action is told by numerous voices, some singular and famous, some anonymous and plural. Sometimes the narrative voice is breathless, almost gasping — the ghostly Marilyn Monroe voice, oddly formal and well mannered, too high and thin for the body that produced it.

Read the whole thing here

Images the Size of Pink Palms

From Fanny Howe’s The Sparkling Stone:

I remember miles of bewildered children filtered towards some bricks in knitted caps and mittens. The snow was attaching itself to smoke stacks and branches, wires. Each one had a bone to pick with G-d. And meanwhile the cruelties made logs for cabins twelve to fifteen feet long and notched. These would store the children. Later the animals  left their roomy forest, those animals whose paws dapple the snow. They are always going or have departed. I was called Paul.

Rising by plane from the Netherlands, we children turned gray over Luxemburg. Snow in the spruce trees below flaked into handbills and pamphlets. Even the cinema system took part in the campaign to color the world gray. In that war each baby weighed a boot and bricked up, during those years, the good men’s power dried up and their foreskin shriveled.

Trains were heading in all directions grinding over weeds on ice cold tracks. The wheels at 5am bore down with the force of seventy men on a muddy woman. Snow whirled airily against each brick entrance where humans tried to get warm from smoke and confetti. The litter in the trees was sometimes white and on the sides of streets it was thick and grey. The city was an oyster inside a pearl.

Can we avoid dying by making a plan for others to die ahead? Send them before us ruthlessly to scout out the territory? Or fill it? A hutch stuffed with woodcutters and chicken-killers was my birth place. I know it. I feel it . I remember it at the level of bone. Grass ate up through the foundations of barracks and community graves. In stone rectangular caves, potatoes were the food of starvation and baked in ovens with those who would eat them.

I did my research and found out that in May of that year there was rain in the ash trees. One interim peace agreement was complete while another country pulled its forces in and out of a hellish corridor. I felt like a toy doll while all this was going on. The radio warmed and cash registers rang in the season of The Dissembler. And images the size of my pink palms were lowered up and down before my eyes: St. Francis holding a lamp, a bleeding heart, and Joseph with the Child Jesus in the crook of his arm.


Blackbirds, Motorbikes & Berger

On John Berger:

Blackbirds are in fact solitary creatures by nature, and they prefer woodland and heaths as habitats, near to open ground. They have a fine lyrical repertoire, and sing richly and clearly with a mellow voice, rather like the dulcet tones of a flute. Furthermore, while the color black has connotations with death and darkness, with mystery and evil, Berger sees it also as the color of sex, of black truffles, of making out in the bare earth of a forest under an oak tree. I can visualize Berger in his kitchen, not far from an oak tree, anointing his sexy black Blackbird with pleasure and tenderness. I can see him lovingly checking the brake fluid, the cooling liquid, the oil, the tire pressure, gripping the chain with his left forefinger to test whether it’s tight enough. Turning on the ignition, he’ll watch the dials light up red and then he’ll examine the two headlights and hear the purr of his flute. Methodical gestures: careful and gentle, done as if the bike’s a living organism, done in the kitchen in front of the stove at night.

In front of Berger’s stove, in his kitchen, is the warmest spot at his chalet in winter. It’s a cozy corner that all visitors remember. Apparently, Berger’s house is pretty beat up inside; he likes it like that. I imagine there are all sorts of bike parts and gear spread about everywhere, amidst stacks of books, loose papers, scythes and work boots. I remember reading a few years ago in the conservative British newspaper the Daily Telegraph a surprisingly affectionate article on Berger, “Portrait of the Artist as a Wild Old Man,” which spoke about his “bashed-up home” and his curious affinity with the American polemicist Andrea Dworkin. “She emerges as an intolerant castrating feminist,” says Berger, “but in her fiction you can see that she is incredibly open, sensuous and tender. There’s a strange relationship between fury and devastating tenderness.” Just like a motorbike, I guess; just like Berger himself: pissed off and furious with the state of the world, with the Dark Age we now inhabit, yet full of devastating tenderness, too. In one of his essays on Rembrandt in The Shape of a Pocket, Berger cites Dworkin saying: “I have no patience with the untorn, anyone who hasn’t weathered rough weather, fallen apart, been ripped to pieces, put herself back together, big stitches, jagged cuts, nothing nice. Then something shines out. But the ones all shined up on the outside, the ass wigglers, I’ll be honest, I don’t like them. Not at all.”

I doubt I’ll ever understand how “the strange relationship between fury and and devastating tenderness” is like a motorbike, but I’m impressed that Berger likes Dworkin.  Though I should have known.

“I Thought You Were a Trout Stream”

From Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America:

The next morning I got up early and ate my breakfast. I took a slice of white bread to use for bait. I planned on making doughballs from the soft center of the bread and putting them on my vaudevilliean hook.
I left the place and walked down to the different street corner. How beautiful the field looked and the creek that came pouring down in a waterfall off the hill.
But as I got closer to the creek I could see that something was wrong. The creek did not act right. There was a strangeness to it. There was a thing about its motion that was wrong. Finally I got close enough to see what the trouble was.
The waterfall was just a flight of white wooden stairs leading up to a house in the trees.
I stood there for a long time, looking up and looking down, following the stairs with my eyes, having trouble believing.
Then I knocked on my creek and heard the sound of wood.
I ended up by being my own trout and eating the slice of bread myself.
The reply of Trout Fishing In America:
There was nothing I could do. I couldn’t change a flight of stairs into a creek. The boy walked back to where he came from. The same thing once happened to me. I remember mistaking on old woman for a trout stream in Vermont, and I had to beg her pardon.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I thought you were a trout stream.”
“I’m not,” she said.

via wood s lot

Black, Queer & Here

From a book review of Thomas Glave’s book, Words to our Now: Imagination and Dissent:

“The word ‘faggot’ itself is to me as nasty a form of violence as the perennial spit-nastiness in that classic American word ‘nigger.’ As a black male who is also gay, I and my brothers and our black lesbian sisters are considered ‘disposables’ in our own black communities and in white ones.

To this day I’m still extremely wary and skeptical of those black men who in convenient circumstances glibly call themselves brothers… who then, in their own peculiar type of fear, loathing, and hypocrisy often inflict violence on black gay men and lesbians whenever we are found either not to be useful or, far worse, too close to home.”
—Excerpted from Chapter 1

If you think it’s tough enough being a black male in America, you might want to consider the plight of the gay black male. For as Thomas Glave describes it, he feels alienated not only from mainstream white society but rejected by blacks, too. Glave, a Professor of English at SUNY Binghampton happens to be particularly adept at describing that sense of isolation in Words to Our Now, a series of essays which condemn a variety of prejudices which have persisted not only in the U.S. but around the world.

Although he weighs in eloquently on an assortment of international concerns from ethnic cleansing to Abu Ghraib, the author is most effective when reporting on or recounting incidents of gay bashing, a subject with which he is well acquainted. For one cannot help but empathize when he recalls from childhood the “wicked pugnacity” of “boys my age and older.” He describes the daily slamming of fists into his face unleashed by the meanest hoodlums, beatings invariably accompanied by a long line of harsh expletives which began with the word “faggot.”

There is something truly touching and deeply saddening about a book which has to make a case for the embracing of black homosexuals by their own community, when acceptance has been the prevailing theme around which the rest of African-Americana has rallied for generations. Who knows, perhaps it is a holdover from mistreatment during slavery which causes his own people to exhibit such severe intolerance for a minority within their own minority.

As a consequence, guess who now has the highest AIDS rate transmission, due to so many scared brothers on the down low choosing to work both sides of the sexual-preference street?

Glave’s intriguing answer to the crisis arrives in the form of a clarion call for social change, arguing that we are at a critical crossroad, that we must all put our bigotries behind us, and that time is of the essence. If nothing else, in emerging from the shadows via such a compelling, well-written opus, he has succeeded in humanizing the issue by lending his face to it, and by proudly putting a personal spin on ACT-UP’s unequivocal, defiant anthem of liberation.

“I’m here! I’m black and queer! Get used to it! “

This evening, Glave launched his latest book, The Torturer’s Wife, at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore.  From the TWB website:

Author of the acclaimed story collection Whose Song?, award-winning Thomas Glave is known for his stylistic brio and courageous explorations into the heavily mined territories of race and sexuality. Here he expands and deepens his lyrical experimentation in stories that focus—explicitly and allegorically—on the horrors of dictatorships, war, anti-gay violence, the weight of traumatized memory, secret fetishes, erotic longing, desire and intimacy.

THOMAS GLAVE is an O. Henry award-winning author and was named a Village Voice Writer on the Verge in 2001. He is the author of Whose Song? and Other Stories, Words to Our Now:Imagination and Dissent (winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Nonfiction), and editor of Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles. He is the 2008-2009 Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Professor in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


We all need a little joy these days.  So, from Joyland:


In our fifth roadside motel room Alice is standing in front of the mirror examining her face carefully. She is wearing nothing more than a pair of white knee socks with a tiny lavender bow stitched just above the back of each slender cotton calf.

While she studies herself her tailless grey and white rescue cat, Olive, circles the perimeter of her ankles methodically. Alice leans down, mascara wand in hand, and scratches the animal’s eager brow.

The cat is not travelling well. We both knew this would be the case, but Alice insisted and I relented.

This particular motel manager said no pets, but Alice managed to charm him just like she charmed the rest of them.

The rest of them. All of them. Me.

I have been in love with Alice and her ever-changing pair of knee socks for six days and two hours now. I have known her for four months and two weeks. I will not tell her that I am in love with her for another six and a half months, and by then it will be far too late.

But here in this roadside motel, with this mangled, rescued cat, I know this love to be entirely true. CBC plays an animated version of “O Canada” that they have been playing for as long as I can remember, a watercolour homage to national unity to end the viewing day. I change the channel.   [more]

Stacey May Fowles


From a review of Flannery: A Life of Flanner O’Connor by Brad Gooch and Collected Works by Flannery O’Connor by Wendy Lesser at bookforum:

Even then, it was obvious she was a genius,” said Miss Katherine Scott, Flannery O’Connor’s freshman-composition teacher, speaking to a reporter many years later about her most famous student—“warped, but a genius all the same.” The teacher no doubt focused on the warped part when the seventeen-year-old Catholic girl with the spectacles and the searing wit took her writing class at Milledgeville’s Georgia State College for Women in the summer of 1942; and it was the warped part she noticed some ten years later, when she read O’Connor’s first book, Wise Blood, and flung it across the room. “I thought to myself that character who dies in the last chapter could have done the world a great favor by dying in the first chapter instead,” she told the same reporter.

This was the sort of understanding and encouragement that surrounded Mary Flannery O’Connor from her earliest years in Savannah to her death at the age of thirty-nine in the Milledgeville area. But we should not be entirely sorry about that. Familial and social disapproval evidently spurred this writer on, enabling her to form a pearl around each painful speck of grit. That O’Connor’s pearls are among the most luminous and valuable we have in all of American literature does not detract in any way from their strangeness and hardness. Indeed, their value lies precisely in that hardness, that strangeness. However many times you read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “The Artificial Nigger,” and “Good Country People,” you will not be able to figure out the source of their enormous power; in fact, they will become increasingly mysterious to you as the years go by.

Read the rest here

John Updike

US writer John Updike died today of lung cancer.  He was 76.  Sad.  I’m sad to lose him. 

From an obituary at the Times Online:

updike_185_x_270_475801aJohn Hoyer Updike was brought up in the Pennsylvanian town of Shillington (transformed into “Ollinger” in his stories) and educated at the high school where his father taught mathematics. A talented draughtsman, he initially harboured ambitions to be an artist, and later spent a year at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford.

His acute eye for cumulative detail was to find expression in his fiction. Throughout his life he tended to view himself as a craftsman rather than Olympian artist. The mechanics of turning memory into prose — typefaces, fonts and proofs — apparently fascinated him as much as the intellectual process.

His love affair with The New Yorker began when he was only 12, after an aunt gave him a subscription to William Shawn’s magazine as a Christmas present. John Cheever’s stories, printed in the magazine at regular intervals, were later to exert a strong influence on his work. Bookish by nature, Updike’s introverted personality was also shaped by his experience of the chronic skin complaint psoriasis (an affliction he shared with the British playwright Dennis Potter).

He first had a short story accepted by The New Yorker in 1954, the year he graduated summa cum laude from Harvard. The following year, after his sojourn in Oxford on a Knox Fellowship, he began a two-year stint on The New Yorker, based in the “Talk of the Town” section.

The job gave Updike an entrée into the life of the city, but in 1957 he took the decisive step of leaving Manhattan to live in the relatively conventional surroundings of the coastal mill town of Ipswich, Massachusetts. In those innocent, pre-inflationary days, he calculated that a writer could make a satisfactory living from selling a handful of stories to The New Yorker each year.

As he later wrote of his departure from New York, he was glad to escape “the literary demi-monde of agents and would-bes and with-it non-participants; this world seemed unnutritious and interfering . . . When I write, I aim in my mind not towards New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a country-ish teen-aged boy finding them and having them speak to him.”

Read the whole thing here

Hortense Calisher

The Fiction of Hortense Calisher by Kathleen Snodgrass (Google Books)

Calisher at The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation

Works of Hortense Calisher at the Authors Guild

Calisher’s political activism – co-signed letters to NYRB

Joyce Carol Oates reviewing Calisher’s novel, The Mysteries of Motion:

“Mysteries of Motion” is remarkable in its scrupulous attention to the details, both technological and psychological, of space flight: the sensations of liftoff and an attempted docking; the malaise of nongravity (“Now we desert into an element where the body can never be quite natural again”); the finicky attention to food, drink, hot water, comfort; the commingled wonder, apprehension, excitement, boredom; the necessary claustrophobic focusing upon one’s fellow travelers. Space travel begins to seem not at all visionary but merely practical, inevitable. Earth as the humanists would know it is finished. Gilpin wonders, as we do, “why even ordinary citizens still relegated so much of what was happening in the world to science fiction. They themselves were fiction, to the scientists.”

As the fated Citizen Courier approaches its destination—as the novel confronts its series of surprising climaxes—Miss Calisher’s prose becomes increasingly economic, urgent, surrealistic. Only one passenger goes mad, but all share in the hallucinatory nature of their predicament. As the novel ends, a mechanical failure prevents the spaceship’s landing. It orbits the space habitat, its passengers awaiting rescue, futilely or not they cannot know. Gilpin broods over the arcane term “Psychopannychy … All-night sleep of the soul; a state in which (according to some) the soul sleeps between death and the day of judgment.” Terror and optimism alternate. Gilpin’s logbook is addressed to us in increasingly incoherent language (“broken time, broken language, broken lives always fusing—breaking the mold?”). Long after the journey has ended for the reader, the Citizen Courier’s eloquent voices linger in the mind, haunting and prophetic. “If we are not dead—we are forestalled,” Gilpin observes, speaking, it might be surmised, for us all.

“Are we the country behind you, or the one before?” Gilpin asks rhetorically at the end of the novel and (perhaps) the end of his life. These voyagers set out in search of an ideal, a new civilization. And the fact that they find it difficult, as we all no doubt would, to abandon their earthly concerns, does not in Miss Calisher’s mind diminish the heroism of their attempt.

“Mysteries of Motion” is as demanding a novel as Miss Calisher’s “False Entry” and “The New Yorkers,” but its rewards are well worth the effort.   [more]


From Holcombe B. Noble at the New York Times:

Hortense Calisher, the novelist and short-story writer whose unpredictable turns of phrase, intellectually challenging fictional situations and complex plots captivated and puzzled readers for a half-century, died on Tuesday in Manhattan. She was 97 and lived in Manhattan.  [more]

Dark Hearts of Humanity

From Chris Hedges at TruthDig:

[Joseph] Conrad saw cruelty as an integral part of human nature. This cruelty arrives, however, in different forms. Stable, industrialized societies, awash in wealth and privilege, can construct internal systems that mask this cruelty, although it is nakedly displayed in their imperial outposts. We are lulled into the illusion in these zones of safety that human beings can be rational. The “war on terror,” the virtuous rhetoric about saving the women in Afghanistan from the Taliban or the Iraqis from tyranny, is another in a series of long and sordid human campaigns of violence carried out in the name of a moral good.

Those who attempt to mend the flaws in the human species through force embrace a perverted idealism. Those who believe that history is a progressive march toward human perfectibility, and that they have the moral right to force this progress on others, no longer know what it is to be human. In the name of the noblest virtues they sink to the depths of criminality and moral depravity. This self-delusion comes to us in many forms. It can be wrapped in the language of Western civilization, democracy, religion, the master race, Liberté, égalité, fraternité, the worker’s paradise, the idyllic agrarian society, the new man or scientific rationalism. The jargon is varied. The dark sentiment is the same.

Conrad understood how Western civilization and technology lend themselves to inhuman exploitation. He had seen in the Congo the barbarity and disdain for human life that resulted from a belief in moral advancement. He knew humankind’s violent, primeval lusts. He knew how easily we can all slip into states of extreme depravity.

“Man is a cruel animal,” he wrote to a friend. “His cruelty must be organized. Society is essentially criminal,-or it wouldn’t exist. It is selfishness that saves everything,-absolutely everything, –everything that we abhor, everything that we love.”

Conrad rejected all formulas or schemes for the moral improvement of the human condition. Political institutions, he said, “whether contrived by the wisdom of the few or the ignorance of the many, are incapable of securing the happiness of mankind.”

He wrote “international fraternity may be an object to strive for … but that illusion imposes by its size alone. Franchement, what would you think of an attempt to promote fraternity amongst people living in the same street, I don’t even mention two neighboring streets.” He bluntly told the pacifist Bertrand Russell, who saw humankind’s future in the rise of international socialism, that it was “the sort of thing to which I cannot attach any definite meaning. I have never been able to find in any man’s book or any man’s talk anything convincing enough to stand up for a moment against my deep-seated sense of fatality governing this man-inhabited world.”

Russell said of Conrad: “I felt, though I do not know whether he would have accepted such an image, that he thought of civilized and morally tolerable human life as a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava which at any moment might break and let the unwary sink into fiery depths.”

Read the whole thing here