Archive for February, 2011

Our Ecstatic Days by Steve Erickson – a review

February 22, 2011

Alright, I want to admit, right out front, that I don’t entirely get this novel. But I enjoyed it. So I want to get it and I am hoping that talking it out in this blog will sort of help me get it.  First, some advice: don’t wade into this thing without a notebook and a pen to keep track of everyone and everywhen. People, places and times twist, turn and overlap in such a way as to make the novel wholly confusing if, like me, you just decide to wade in and get through it because it’s due back at the library in two days.There’s:

Kristin, who is the mother of a child named numerous variations of Cale.

Cale/Kale/Cabbage (alright, I made that last one up), who is Kristin’s son and appears throughout the novel, aging appropriately for whenever anything is taking place.

Lulu Blu: a dominatrix alter ego of Kristin’s on the other side of a lake that, seemingly overnight, springs up and drowns a good chunk of LA

Bronte: an unborn/born twin sister to Cale/Kale/Collared Greens that becomes an odd non-lover/child of Lulu Blu on one side of the lake before maybe falling into a similar role with Kristin, somehow back…on the same side of the lake?

Wang – a Chinese dissident who stared down tanks in Tienanmen Square (yes, THAT Chinese dissident) and who came to the US, had an unrequited love affair with yet another Kristin who is remarkably similar to the lead character Kristin but isn’t, is part of some sort of resistance or insurgency in a war that appears to take place in the western United States in the near future, and who is  a submissive to Lulu.

Lake Zed: oh, yeah, this big lake that buries LA and appears to have some sort of bizarre birth canal at the bottom that allows Kristin to travel back and forth between a world where she left her kid alone in a boat only to have him carried off and raised by owls, and another world where he, well, wasn’t.

While reading the novel, it’s impossible to miss the motherliness/birth imagery because it’s on every other page. And at least two or three times, we have characters literally being birthed in some form. Menstruation is mentioned often. There’s a healer who listens and diagnoses the ailments of buildings. There’s a lot of comforting and talk of motherly sacrifice that might be just as much selfishness as selflessness.

I want to say something more concrete about this work. I enjoyed reading it. It feels as if the whole motherhood thing can be mined endlessly (have I mentioned a near orgiastic scene where a group of women are seemingly overcome by the opportunity to beat and whip a group of men handcuffed to the wall)(and one of these men coming back to Bronte for more of the same later on?), but I’m fairly certain I still don’t have a solid enough grasp of the material to go into that sort of thing. Needless to say, it is a very mother-centric work, a very woman-centric work, that offers a view of existence remarkably different from what we normally receive, especially from a novel that could be accurately described as post-apocalyptic.

In th end, I think this is just something you have to experience for yourself and find out if you like it. I enjoyed it and I’m going to think about it some more and try to tease a bit more out of it before I haul it back to the library. I’ll let everyone know how I do.

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Going after Cacciato by Tim O’Brien – a review

February 17, 2011

Reading Going after Cacciato, I had this overwhelming sense that what I was really reading was a tremendous work of metafiction. A long story short, the novel is about Paul Berlin and his unit going after an AWOL soldier named Cacciato. It’s also about Berlin looking back and trying to make sense of the chase and of the construction of a fictional chase. The other third of the novel is this fictional pursuit by Berlin’s troupe, slowly tracking Cacciato from Vietnam, across the middle east, and onto the streets of Paris.

The initial part of the quest, Berlin and his group going after Cacciato, would be the genesis of the idea that Berlin later spins out into the greater story of chasing Cacciato across the continent. The time dragging by while Cacciato is standing guard would be the time every writer spends alone, bringing his idea to a boil, searching for inspiration from what surrounds him. And the journey is, of course, the story, taking shape in front of us.

And the events of the story itself become symbolic of the journey taken by the writer. Cacciato, the character being chased, stands in as the kernel around which the story is built, the ideal the writer is pursuing in putting one word after the other to find the end. Meanwhile, the characters are the fears, motivations and doubts of the writer – here personified in Paul Berlin  – as he makes his quest.

Henderson – initial doubts at the outset, also carries the biggest gun. He disappears early on, something the writer has to set aside to continue his journey of writing a novel.

Stink Harris – loud bravado, what seems like supreme self-confidence. He lasts through the majority of the novel, but finally disappears about 4/5of the way through, after having literally jumped into a pond too big for him to swim. He’s the doubt any writer feels towards the end of a work, the doubt of its quality, of the ability to finish, etc., another obstacle necessary to overcome.

Doc Peret: the medic, there til the end, trying to heal and comfort the wounded with M&Ms. Essentially, he’s the lying voice of comfort that keeps you up and going throughout the process of writing. You know that what he’s giving you are just sugar pills, but you will yourself to believe in him.

Oscar Johnson – the realist, the action, the steady one foot in front of the other, one letter after another. It’s the voice in the back of a writers head that just says, “GO!”

Lt Corson – the voice of wiseness that counterbalances the voice of action. He tempers enthusiasm, he sets the pace, he brings order to the forced chaos of Oscar Johnson’s “GO!” mantra.

Sarkin Aung Wan – the muse. While Cacciato presents the kernal the writer chases after, Sarkin Aung Wan is the flow of ideas that guide the writer along, that sparks him, that lures him through the darkness while Oscar Johnson is screaming “GO!” and Lt. Corson is advising on what direction to head. She is the writers guide through his unconscious wilderness.

And the story itself shows the ups and downs of the writing. There is the first hard trudge as they get going, and as the writer gets going. They are finding their footing, finding their rhythm, they are discovering how to move just as a writer discovers how to move his work. They disappear into the earth, into darkness, the fear and anxiety of the size of the job taken on devouring the writer but form which he is led by his muse.

Their trouble in Iran leads to the loss of Stink, and then the group fractures beyond repair in Paris where Oscar assumes full control, with the belief of what “must” happen. Meanwhile, the Lt. and Sarkin drift off together before the climactic finish of the novel that, by all appearances, ends in disaster for Oscar and Paul. Which I think is significant, looking at this as a work of metafiction, that the work falls apart when the muse and the sage leave the scene. Suddenly, the work is no longer tempered by a voice of consideration, nor is it guided by the muse. Instead, it is forcibly pushed to a rushed conclusion, and their story falls apart, killed in an ambush.

Whose party you runnin’ anyway?

February 15, 2011

Okay, so instead of continuing to try to pound out a review for Going After Cacciato, I’m going to go off on a mild tangent about our (the U.S) next budget. We have a Democrat president submitting a budget that slashes spending on damn near every cultural program he could find. After giving $60 billion back to the wealthy, we’re slashing programs for funding the arts. Yeah, this makes so much sense. How about we buy one less fighter jet? Or maybe fight one less war? It is a sign of how far to the right this country has swung. In today’s environment, Reagan and Eisenhower would be centrist liberals and Sarah Palin would be posting websites with cross hairs on them. And thirty years ago, Obama would have been a republican.  Even his vilified health care overhaul is just a re-named versoin of the plan the GOP have been pushing since Nixon as their alternative to the Democrats’ desires for a national health care system.

Alright, done ranting. Just tired of seeing our government, our public, turn their backs on the arts; especially when they flock so pathetically towards crap like American Idol.

Rane, everywhere

February 9, 2011

The only event of AWP that I, and the g/f,  felt was a necessity for us to attend was the tribute to Rane Arroyo. He wasn’t in our lives long. She met him in a class in her fall semester, where Rane had to miss a couple of weeks and was covered by his partner Glen. I met him a couple of semesters later in another class where, about three-quarters of the way through the semester, he pulled me off to the side during the ten minute break and encouraged me to go after an MFA. It’s a piece of advice, and a belief in me, that I still carry around.

Before talking about the tribute itself, I feel like I need to mention that Rane seemed to pop up throughout the conference in some way. Maybe we were just looking for him, but I don’t think so. I bought at least one book of poetry because of their resemblance to his Roswell poems. At another table, we received a free copy of Water Stone Review and found Rane’s name on the back among the contributors. We ran into other people who knew Rane throughout the conference. And there was a distinct feeling that maybe we wouldn’t have been there at all if it wasn’t for him. For us, at least, the place reverberated with his presence, with the possibility he had instilled in us, with what I can only think of as the sheer elastic joy of him.

The tribute was put together by Glenn Sheldon and consisted of twenty or so readers, each reading one poem of Rane’s that touched them, that impacted them, or reading a poem about him, remembering. It was touching, it was painful, I think I cried a couple of times. It was good to hear Rane’s words spoken aloud.  It’s something I may never hear again, at least in this type of setting and it’s something I needed.

For the event, Glenn produced a tribute chapbook with remembrances by the readers along with re-prints of the poems they read. Interspersed throughout the book are sketches, drawings and photos of and by Rane. I hate to pick favorites from it, they are all beautiful, but I found the poem by Luis Alberto Urrea to be particularly heart rending.

On the back of the chapbook is a picture of Rane, with that little Rane smile, that smile that’s trying to be straight faced but is bent with that elastic joy. At the end, Glenn stood up and said that something Rane said was, “cry, but the tears are not for me, they are for you. Afterward, when you laugh, that will be for me.” I laugh occasionally, but I’m not quite past the crying stage yet. I miss him and the world is a bit worse off for his having departed it. But somewhere got a good deal brighter with him having arrived. Rest in peace, my friend, knowing that I am one of many who still carry you around.

what I wish was a drunken conversation in a McDonald’s at AWP

February 8, 2011

The g/f and I went to one off-site event while we were at AWP, at The Asylum, where we watched some poets read, munched some vegan appetizers (which were incredible, despite their non-animalness)(not awesome enough to make me give up my animal tasty treats for good, though) and where I got the beginnings of a headache and tired of some personal space intrusion. This was still at the time I was having to do a TON of grading for the courses I teach, so I wasn’t in the best mood to begin with.

So, we left after the readings and struck out for the convention again, hoping to catch the last bit of the Jhumpa Lahiri keynote address. Instead, we wandered into a basement McDonald’s and griped about the state of poetry and the faint of heart, spotlight shunning writers who just don’t stomp the terra firma, to borrow and, likely, butcher a quote from Hunter Thompson.

First, I should say, I’m not a huge poetry fan right now. There just isn’t a lot out there that interests me and a lot of it sounds pretty similar. This isn’t to say it’s not good, I just don’t find a lot of it catching or interesting. It seems a lot of what is said is said to work in a slam environment though not necessarily on the page or even in your own head. Again, this isn’t to say it’s not good, it just feels like everyone is doing the same thing right now. And none of them really say a whole helluva lot.

And part of the problem seems to be this odd anti-intellectualism that permeates poetry (and, truth be told, fiction). This isn’t to say they’re dumb, or ignorant, just that I have continually witnessed an aversion to research and reading something that isn’t fiction or poetry.  I’ve griped before about this idea that the work is sparked by some muse and comes from on-high, which is another way of saying what I often heard repeated, that “you don’t think about it, you just write it and it’s THERE.” Which I disagree with too a fair extent, despite how many well written poems I’ve read that chronicle the depths of your despair in the eyes of a puppy on a sunny day.

Which, in a roundabout but perfectly logical (at the time) way, took me to Allen Ginsberg and my declaration that he was the last poet that I could genuinely respect and admire as a Great (capital G) Poet (capital P) because he not only wrote great poetry but, by all appearances, had a meaning and purpose behind what and how he was writing. I’ve liked poets since him, sure, I really enjoy Bukowski, but respect him as a writer? As an artist? Maybe not so much.

And what sort of disgusted myself with this declaration is that it’s sort of like bringing Hitler or the Nazis into an internet argument – it’s just so over the top inarguable, that it’s pointless to bring it up. I mean, is there anyone who is going to argue that there was a bigger, more influential and flat out better poet after Ginsberg in the last half of the Twentieth century? I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, unless we begin pulling in guys like Bob Dylan into the argument, or try to argue that filmmakers are poets in a visual medium.

And what disgusts me a bit now is that I know, and have known, other poets who are very good, who are dedicated to their craft, and who I stupidly insulted. But, at the same time, I still have this nagging feeling of having still been right, to a certain degree. There have been poets since Ginsberg who entered our social consciousness, who found themselves or made themselves part of our national fabric, but none of them have carried the weight of Ginsberg, none of them have cast his shadow. None of them have stomped the land.

Anyway, that’s my off-handed gripe/post. Take it with the grain of salt it was written with.

AWP round-up

February 7, 2011

Alright, I’m finally home, the conference is over, and I don’t have to get right back on the road to drive to Michigan and back to pick up the kid from the grandparents. I’ve also caught up on my grading so, for the first time in a couple of weeks, I have genuinely free time to sit down and work. So instead of doing that, I’m going to blog.

It was fun.  I went with the g/f and a couple of people from her program. We rode the metro for a few days, I wandered around the book fair(which was HUGE), saw a couple of sights, and went to all of two sessions, one of which I’ve already blogged and complained about.  First, I don’t see how this thing was all that stressful, but I’m also not a CW prof or an MFA student, so maybe I was necessarily out of the loop on that one.  I found the book fair enjoyable, engaging and fun. I bought WAY too many books, while also not buying enough.

I can’t help it. I feel like I, and everybody, needs to support these places when they can. If you don’t support them, they’re going to go out of business and that’s going to hurt all of us. However, I’m also not a huge poetry fan, so I don’t like buying a lot of lit mags because, well, they’re crammed full of poetry. So, instead, I bought books, including at least one book of poetry, largely because it reminded me of Rane Arroyo’s Roswell Poems and I got a free bendy alien with it. Awesome.

Speaking of swag, the g/f and I got a lot of pins, some pens, at least one notebook and a ton of little chocolate candies walking around the thing. Everyone is giving away something. Now we’re trying to figure out what to do with it all.

Before I sign off on this post, I do have some suggestions for anyone attending future AWPs. One, get a hotel either at the convention or right by a metro stop. It will make life FAR easier for you. Through sheer chance we stayed at a hotel that was a block and a half from a metro station and our lives were made easy because of it. We bought metro cards the first day and we got back and forth for everything the entire time we were there. Public transit is a godsend, take advantage of it and don’t bother with a car.

Two, go with a group. I couldn’t imagine making this trip (at least in a car) without at least a couple of other people going along. It’s fun, it’s lively, and there’s just so much crap to do, you need someone to do it with.

Three, if you have a job outside of writing, or something that doesn’t necessarily make room for things like massive writer conferences, do your best not to take any (or much) work with you. Through some events outside of our control, I was saddled with gobs of grading to do while I was there, and it just killed my schedule. While there were not a lot of sessions that peaked my interest, I would have had a difficult time going to them even if they did just  because of the massive amount of work that I had to get done. It also killed my chances at socializing. In fact, I think I irritated more than one person who plucked down in  a seat next to me when I continued to be bent over my laptop, correcting subject/verb disagreements rather than striking up conversation with them.

Fourth, pick your off-site events carefully. I’m not a huge fan of readings, especially in crowded, loud little bars. This just happened to be the only off-site event I went to.

Last, talk to people. That’s why you’re there. Talk talk talk. You might feel awkward at first but the more you do it, the easier it becomes. And, if you don’t want to talk, just say “no, I’m not” when they ask if you’re a writer. You’ll get a weird look and that weird look is your chance to skirt away to some free hershey chocolates in the booth across the aisle.

I’m at AWP

February 3, 2011

Well, I’m there. I made it to AWP this year. For those who don’t know, and I certainly wouldn’t have until my girlfriend asked me, “Hey, you want to go to AWP?” it’s where’s a bunch of writers and writers/professors and writers/whateverers gather to talk about writing. There are a bunch of different little sessions where four or five writers get together and do a presentation on a theme or idea that they’re interested in, usually followed by a little Q&A. This morning, I went to a session that was basically about monsters and their prevalence/use/possibly abuse in fiction. Hannah Tinti was awesome. She was quick, she was insightful, she was engaging. And she had trouble with this little projector thing, which introduced a welcomed bit of levity and everydayness that should have set the tone for the rest of the session.

I wasn’t a fan of Laura van den Berg’s short story collection, but I thought she did well here. As she guessed, she would have people disagreeing with her over Murakami’s work being his After the Quake collection (for my money, it’s still  The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or, maybe, Kafka on the Shore) and with her description of Murakami having a lot of “zaniness” in his work, but it was still entertaining.

I don’t really want to get into a review of the whole thing, largely because I don’t also want to be critical of any of the presenters . What they are doing is difficult, and I know they are doing the best they can. By and large, the session was fun and informative and, in the end, I think that’s what counts. What I do want to say, though, is that I have a feeling what I feared about these sessions will come true – writers talking about writing isn’t always the most entertaining thing and they aren’t always the best at it. As one of the presenters said, writers like to write because they’re better at that than talking. And he might have been right. From the start I was thinking that this might have been a more engaging experience if it was a group of lit professors up there, plying their trade (which is really what the writers were doing =- trying to be lit professors). While I was engaged by the discussion, I can’t say I learned much. I wonder what some legitimate lit professors would have said up there, what they would have focused on, and what I might have learned. This isn’t to knock the group who were up there, or the event, it’s fun, it’s engaging, it’s entertaining. But, so far, it’s also been a bit hollow. I’m not looking at putting together a session heavy schedule (I really would like to see all of the touristy crap, I can’t help it, I AM a tourist here for god’s sake), so I don’t plan on having a lot of little posts about this, but I do plan on having a few. So…until the next literary thing pops up…