Archive for July, 2009

All The Pretty Horses – Review

July 28, 2009

All the Pretty Horses is the first tale in Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Border Trilogy.’ It centers around the innocent but principled John Grady Cole who, with his best friend Lacey Rawlins, take their horses and head to Mexico to seek a life that is compatible with their conception for how life should be. It is 1948, WWII is over, and the world is changing and they don’t like it.  Mexico is their Big Rock Candy Mountain.

The novel is softer in tone and image than the other McCarthy novels I have read (The Road and Child of God), playing out as a coming of age story for the young protagonist. Because of this, some of the violence seems forced – largely when it involves John Grady Cole. While the violence perpetrated against the protagonists seems possible, even natural given the flow and direction of the story, it is just difficult to put some actions with the lead character.

Towards the end of the novel, Cole visits a judge who, earlier in the day, ruled in his favor in a case involving a horse Cole was trying to return to its owner and was accused of stealing. Cole expresses regret for some of the things he had to do in Mexico and some of the things he chose to do. As this is a story about growing up, where the trip to Mexico and then back to the United States plays as a rite of passage into manhood, this makes sense. What McCarthy smartly does is leave Cole unsure of the rightness of his actions while the judge effectively tell, ‘that’s life.”  While Grady is less of a child than he was when he left, it is clear he still has a ways to go yet.

Though there is something else to Grady’s innocence and lackof surity in the rightness of his actions, regardless of their necessity, that speaks to the greater evil of the world. Regardless of our personal inclinations, circumstances may push us beyond what we believe to be the limits of our abilities and the boundaries of our morals. This is something that I think is touched on in The Road but, in this latter novel, McCarthy’s protagonists use the line drawn between their unwillingness to cross certain moral boundaries (such as cannibalism) to differentiate themselves in a fundemental way. I wonder if McCarthy’s view of life and how circumstances shape our lives and how moral/physical choices shape our lives has changed.

As always, here’s the Amazon link.

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getting the muck out of the gears

July 22, 2009

I think there are few things more difficult than picking up the pen when you’ve been on the sidelines for awhile. Right now my girlfriend is trying to work back into writing fiction and seems to be having a particularly rough time. She got hung up on making a chapbook over the summer, crafting a connected whole of 20-30 pages of poems, and hasn’t been able to get into the fictive swing of things since.

Like any idiot who doesn’t realize he isn’t helping matters I offered to help and tried to throw ideas at her like a dartboard and was confounded when every dart seemed to catch an edge and clatter to the floor.

I think the majority of the difficulty between my attempt at helping and my actually helping is the result of how each of us views writing. She seems to be very much of the vein of “when the muse strikes” and having to know this, that or the other before starting to write.  To me this seems overly particular and romantic.

I view writing as a job. You want to be a writer? well, then start writing. Good or bad, as long as it gets onto the page you can work it around later and should be able to sculpt something pretty solid. The main problem lies in getting the stuff on the page in the first place.

This also helps explain my way of working out of funks or “getting the muck out of the gears.” When talking with her I compared her way of writing to trying to start a car every three months and expecting it to run fine every time. You let anything sit for too long and it tends to get grime and gunk where it shouldn’t have grime and gunk and it generally grinds to a halt.  But if you keep starting the engine up every other day or so, take it for a drive once in awhile, the car will be more likely to have the right parts moving and the right parts staying.

So in writing it’s best to keep the writing going. The more you do it, the cleaner the gears are. but if you do get out of practice or into a funk, the closest thing to an oil change or a radiator flush/fill is to just keep writing and to keep filling the page with the hope that the machine will work itself into running shape again and you can rejoin the writing race.

On the plus side, she finally seemed to have hit on an idea tonight she thinks she can work on. But she doesn’t feel knowledgeable enough to start so she’s doing something that probably comes naturally for most former and current grad students – she started researching. It’s not the first step I’d take, but she seems to be on her way.

And what does all of this mean? I’m not sure but I still think you should write every day if you want to write better tomorrow.

By Night In Chile – Review

July 21, 2009

By Night in Chile is a 130 page novella by Roberto Bolano giving a night long rant by the aged and sickly priest,  Father Urrutia. Over the course of the rant we are given an oral history of the priest as he attempted to be a writer himself, gained some prominance in literary circles as a critic, attended literary parties and tutored Pinochet on Marxism while continually returning to lash out at a “wizened youth” who has become the Father’s foil.

It is never openly stated but it becomes a fair interpretation to say that the wizened youth who so haunts the rants of Urrutia isn’t an actual person but possibly the ghost of the father’s past when he was perhaps a bit more idealistic and true to his goals than the man he became. Even as Urrutia claims the “wizened youth” has grown more silent in contrast to Urrutia’s rant, and while the old priest never admits to have been wrong, a sense that the father knows he is only deluding himself and that the specter of his youthful self is right haunts the pages.

Urretia comes across as a priest who isn’t overly interested in the religious side of his job. Whenever he turns to use or advocate prayer or religious practice in a meaningful way, he finds it difficult to invoke and laments himself of his own shortcomings. When visiting a party while wearing his cassock or while being asked to perform mass while travelling across the Atlantic, however, he revels in his duty and performs them with aplomb. 

It becomes difficult to say whether his entire life is defined by this shallowness or whether its just his spirituality that is lacking for his love and respect for literature seems sincere in a way that his devotion to his faith does not. In a time of stress, he turns towards classic literature. He reveres Neruda. Nearly every significant conversation he has connects to literature in some way. While part of this clearly belies the fact that he is more interested in being a writer than a priest, it doesn’t make his respect for it any less.

If you’re a fan of Bolano this won’t disappoint but if you’re new to his work, I would suggest something a bit less intimidating in format. While it’s only 130 pages long, it is one long unbroken paragraph of text with sentences that occasionally run for several lines. It’s like a light version of Daniel Foster Wallace in some regards, though the text itself will make you think of the obvious Notes from Underground. While it’s a good read, and a recommended read, it’s also not something for everyone.

concrete jungle makes for creative nature poetry

July 20, 2009

Alright, I’m lying. It’s not really creative nature poetry. But it’s nature poetry with a bit of a different slant to it. I’ve always lived in the country.  I’ve always had a backyard. My childhood memories include my parents using cigarettes or salt to get leeches off my legs after walking through the creek at my grandparent’s place.  The most amazing thing I have ever seen is a tie between the clear night sky from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the clear night sky from western nebraska.  Though the obscenely cute little ass of a woman I used to date places a dmn close third.

Living in cleveland now, walking around a bit, I see how nature is a commodity in places like this. Trees and bushes are hemmed in by concrete and trimmed to pleasing shapes. The night sky is a void. The only thing that seems to have some power of its own is the sky and the weather. It just rolls in and rolls out oblivious to our wants and cares but I bet that someday even that will change and come under our control.

Back to the nature poetry. An emphasis on the poesy. What I’m saying is that nature isn’t even nature here. There are a lot of beautiful homes, cute shops, well manicured lawns, etc. etc. etc., but it seems to be in a battle against a ridgic control by people who want it to simply be in its place and be pretty and its desire to live. Working on filling up a book of poetry loosely centered around nature and the difference between what I was able to write about before and what I am writing about now is stark on the page. It becomes fairly clear that not only the roads planned haphazardly and a bit on the fly but nature was an afterhtought as well. It makes me think of a book I read a couple of years ago about the city of Los Angeles and how it has been hit by disaster after disaster, from earthquakes to tornados, and how because of poor city planning it is also ripe to be hit by fires to poorly contstructed tenement buildings and other assorted man made disasters.  Cleveland makes met think of this. Whether I should be connecting the two or not I don’t know, I doubt it, but the connection is already there in my head.

Should make for interesting poetry, though.

Master and Margarita: Review

July 19, 2009

I haven’t had the best of luck with Russian novels. Or Russian movies (Solaris is just very difficult for me to endure, despite also enjoying it). I loved Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, though it also took me a few years to trudge through it. There is just something about Russian writing or, perhaps more accurately, translations of Russian writing that just  bog me down. It makes me feel like I am reading Hawthorne. I know it’s great, I enjoy it, but I also feel like I am trying to walk through mud that pulls at each attempted step.

Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita is remarkably free of this. It moves with an ease that belies its translation. Without further research, I wonder if this isn’t a possible reflection of a bit of influence by Western literature or by Western life in general than other Russian writers that I have read. A quick look at Bulgakov’s history shows that he served in the miliary (medic, WWI), and that his family moved to France when the Revolution hit. While this isn’t to suggest that other Russian/Soviet writers weren’t “worldly” in views and thought, it appears that Bulgakov had a significant amount of first hand knowledge along with an impressive education.

The novel itself is a clear satire of the burgeoning Soviet society. In a text with constant references to MASOLIT and with a near omnipresent government force constantly attempting to nip at the heels of Woland (Satan) and his compatriot’s heels, it continually invoked Orwell’s masterpiece, 1984.

The only trouble the novel runs into is what nearly any novel dealing with Satan falls into and that’s simply not being impressive enough with many of Satan’s hijinks. Though, this could also be part of Bulgakov’s plan. To the reader, the outcome of the show Woland, Fagot and Behemoth put on seems pretty clear, which makes the blind following of the audience all the more stark.

What is most interesting about Master and Margarita is that the classic portrayal of the Devil is absent. Rather than the tempter into sin and damnnation of the Mephistopheles of Marlow’s Faustus, Bulgakov’s Woland seems more interested in exposing the decadence and faults of people and their society rather than taking advantage of them. The whole thing seems to be more of a grand experiment for him than anything.

All in all, a wonderful, and highly recommended, read.

Amazon Price: $10.19 (but, as always, you can get it far more affordably used)