10/27/2010 2:58:21 PM
Most people walk away from college with a favorite professor, an educator they had a certain intellectual connection with that greatly influenced their work as a student. Michael White’s relationship with his favorite professor, who he met during September of 1979, was slightly more complicated than this. In “The Bard of the Bottle” from The Missouri Review, White recalls his friendship with professor Tom McAfee, a friendship characterized by nightly black-out drinking sessions, reading and workshopping poetry for hours on end, and eventually one caring for the other during his dying days drenched in delirium.
White, during his sophomore year at the University of Missouri-Columbia, was failing all of his classes but McAfee’s. He bartended at The Tiger bar, a favorite haunt of the professor, and every night like clockwork White would close up the joint, pour several glasses of bourbon, and grab his backpack full of poetry books:
I’d go to the mezzanine with these supplies. By then he’d [McAfee] be passed out, nodding in his chair beside his watery drink, a cigarette burned down to the nub in his slender, nicotine-stained fingers. But he would awake and be deeply grateful to see me. It was like I was rescuing him—which I was, from the terrors afflicting him whenever he closed his eyes. We’d stay up and talk: he’d tell me his dreams; we’d talk about whatever dramas we’d seen in the bar; or, mostly, I’d just read to him. Night after night, I read those poems, dozens of poems by one poet or another, and Tom would gesture in deep pleasure or recite along with me. These were poems he needed to hear again and again, and I was happy to reread them, since it helped me to comprehend, to hear them for the first or fifth time.
It was an unhealthy relationship at best, drinking to the point of unconsciousness every evening, but it wasn’t as shallow as one alcoholic finding companionship in another. As time went on, McAfee grew more and more ill at the hands of his vices, and their bond continued to evolve:
My role in Tom’s life had already begun to switch from friend to caregiver. This was absurd, as I couldn’t even care for myself, but I was what Tom had. I brought him food for the last months of his life. He would have gone sooner if I hadn’t. Fool that I was, I still believed I could save him. I would bring a bowl of red beans with a little bacon. That was all he wanted; he acted like it was sacredly wonderful stuff. When I showed up with the beans, he would practically weep with gratitude. He wouldn’t touch anything else anyone brought him, just a few mouthfuls of soft beans at night which he could chew with his bad teeth.
James Thomas McAfee's health continued to decline, and he died in 1982 at the age of 54. Michael White, after being evicted from his apartment, fired from his job, and essentially losing everything, ended up receiving his Ph.D from the University of Utah in English and creative writing and has won numerous prestigious awards and gained significant respect in the literary community. White turned 54 the day before he wrote “The Bard of the Bottle.”
Source: The Missouri Review(excerpt only available online)
10/21/2010 4:10:45 PM
Over at Poets.org Ada Limón talks about how easy it is to feel isolated in the world as a poet. One place where she finds solace is through social networking, not necessarily the first thing you’d associate with a poet. “I think the social networking tools for poets have served as a wonderful way to not feel alone as an artist,” Limón says. “And I feel like if that’s all it does, it does its job.”
While you're at Poets.org, don't miss Limón’s reading of “Marketing Life for Those of Us Left,” a poem she wrote for a friend who died of cancer.
10/20/2010 3:35:55 PM
The delineation between the clichéd and the truly illuminating “death essay” is a fairly easy line to draw. More often than not, narratives of loss meander into the trite, growing further and further away from any original or discerning insight. William Giraldi’s “The Physics of Speed,” featured in the Fall 2010 issue of The Antioch Review, finds itself on the less populous, and more rewarding, side of the line.
After his 47-year-old father is killed during a high-speed motorcycle accident, Giraldi is gripped by a terror so profound it feels as physically pervasive as a highly infectious disease. Giraldi writes after attending his father’s funeral:
In the following days I learned that absence takes up space, has mass, moves from room to room. Grief is much heavier than fear. Fear hung before me in anticipation, whereas grief was planted like a sequoia in my stomach, its roots reaching far down into my legs for water, its branches reaching up through my arms and torso and neck, the poison from its fruit spilling into my cells.
What seems to seize Giraldi’s consciousness more so than grief is a fervent need to know how this catastrophe transpired. So, Giraldi digs into the details of his father’s demise: visiting the location of the accident, speaking with witnesses of the crash, and even phoning the coroner’s office to obtain a meticulous report on the fatal injuries his father sustained when he was hurled from his motorcycle and subsequently crushed between the machine and the guardrail. The coroner, a man named Steven Grim (seriously), was unavailable at the time of Giraldi’s call, so instead the grieving yet relentlessly curious son spoke with the coroner’s assistant:
Grim’s assistant—that soldier of truth, he who had literally seen inside my father, that place in his head where his thoughts came from, and that place in his chest where his love was—left me with these stories: the dying who refuse to die even when they want to, the bereaved who refuse to bury their dead. And he left me with those cold nouns, larynx and cranial vault. They split like thin, sun-baked shale. Human evolution had no way of anticipating steel and speed, and so we are like graham crackers in the grip of an angry child. Our bodies, so perfectly adapted to the African savanna of one million years ago, are simply waiting to be shredded in civilization.
If only there existed more narratives of loss like Giraldi’s, maybe finding the shared experience of true despair, confusion, and grief in literature would be less difficult to come by.
Source: The Antioch Review
(excerpt only available online)
10/19/2010 2:28:14 PM
In his 1826 landmark The Physiology of Taste, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es”—literally, “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are.” That imperative has always struck me as stereotypically French, sort of goofy (I am canned soup?) and, frankly, judgmental. That hasn’t, of course, stopped food cultists from carving Brillat-Savarin’s commandment into stone, and if anything the old gastronome’s words have become an increasingly shame-based creed in our present culture of hyper-conscious—and hyper-conspicuous—consumption.
Secular transubstantiation has always been a subtext of both the ethics and the aesthetics of cooking and eating, but thankfully the history of food writing is full of entertaining stuff that owes more to decadence than duty. Plenty of it, in fact, does little but pay slavish devotion to the muse Gasterea (Brillat-Savarin felt obligated to create a tenth Muse), and celebrates in often eccentric terms the pure pleasures of chow.
Darryl Campbell over at The Millionshas a nice short history of food writing that ranges from Brillat-Savarin to Anthony Bourdain (although it curiously manages to avoid a single mention of M.F.K. Fisher). Somewhere in there, though, you will find this quote from a typically prophetic George Orwell: “We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine gun.”
Source: The Millions
10/15/2010 4:27:37 PM
We're having a discussion around the Utne offices to close out this eventful work week. Here's the question at hand: David Sedaris or David Rakoff? Though Sedaris is great, for my money Fraud, by Rakoff, is the best either writer has to offer. Now he's got a new one on the shelves: Half Empty. The best way to enjoy either of these writers–and this really isn't up for debate–is to hear their words in their own voices, so enjoy the brief clip from Half Empty (Random House Audio) below.
Extra: Watch Rakoff's recent appearance on The Daily Show, where he discusses finding out that he had a tumor while he was writing Half Empty.
10/15/2010 10:52:16 AM
It’s easy to get discouraged about the state of the environment, but the book A Reenchanted World by James William Gibson, published this spring in paperback, offers some succor to despairing souls.
Gibson meticulously builds a case that we are in the midst of “a wave of spiritual interest in nature,” a cultural shift that finds us treasuring human-animal connections, untrammeled landscapes, and all of nature’s vast wonder in our films, books, media, and personal lives. Writes Gibson:
The current change is much broader, deeper, and more varied than what has come before. Virtually every part of contemporary culture, from the highest realms of science, theology, art, and literature to the mundane world of commercial television programming, has experienced its revolutionary influence. … The ultimate goal of this sweeping change, which I call “the culture of enchantment,” is nothing less than the reinvestment of nature with spirit. Flatly rejecting modernity’s reduction of animals, plants, places, and natural forces to either matter or utilitarian resource, the culture of enchantment attempts to make nature sacred once again. …
People respond to the culture of enchantment because it offers them something they need (and cannot find elsewhere in consumerist America): transcendence, a sense of mystery and meaning, glimpses of a numinous world beyond our own. The spiritual connections made to animals and landscapes almost invariably lead—often intentionally, sometimes not—to a new relationship to nature in general. And nature perceived as “sacred” is allowed to exist on its own terms, for its own sake, valuable simply because it is there.
Source: A Reenchanted World
Image by suburbanbloke, licensed under Creative Commons.
10/8/2010 3:30:03 PM
South Dakota can no longer boast being the McFarthest Spot—the location in the lower-48 most removed from a McDonald's. Stephen Von Worley of Data Pointed discovered that due to the closure of a McDonald’s restaurant a desolate patch of Nevada desert is now the farthest one could possibly get from a McDonald’s in the contiguous United States (115 miles away, as the crow flies). Von Worley gushed after he posted a satellite photo of the spot online:
From the air, it looks fairly nondescript, but certainly, vegan treasures must lie hidden beneath the shrubs. Soon, I’ll dispatch an expeditionary team to exploit them, and by September’s end, barring an early snow, all shall be revealed!
Turns out the “expeditionary team” consisted only of Von Worley, who drove as far as he could into the Nevada wilderness, unloaded his mountain bike, and rode the remaining distance to the holy ground.
And what did Von Worley do when he got there? He consumed the 5,000-calorie, $31.50 meal that he had purchased at a McDonald’s in Burney, California on the drive down, consisting of “two Quarter Pounders with Cheese, three Large Fries, two Apple Pies, a Hamburger, Big Mac, 10-Piece McNuggets, Large Coke, Medium Orange Juice, and a Caesar Salad.”
See? There is no escape.
Source: Data Pointed
Image courtesy of Stephen Von Worley.
10/8/2010 2:34:40 PM
Chris Adrian’s resume is one of those that makes you wonder just what the hell you’ve been doing with your time, since apparently other people—like Adrian—have no problem getting stuff done, while you can’t even seem to find time to do the laundry or catch a movie. On top of writing three novels (Gob's Grief, The Children's Hospital, and the forthcoming The Great Night) and a book of short stories (A Better Angel), Adrian is a pediatrician and a student at divinity school. And he's a fellow in something called pediatric hematology-oncology. And he publishes short stories pretty much everywhere. And he was recently named to The New Yorker’s list “20 under 40,” honoring 20 writers under the age of 40 who show “a mastery of language and of storytelling [and] a palpable sense of ambition.” Ambition seems an understatement when it comes to Adrian. I have yet to read his tome The Children’s Hospital, but it was the opening line of that book, which I picked up when I was working in a bookstore, that first turned me on to this writer: “I am the recording angel, doomed to watch.”
In his forthcoming book, The Great Night, Adrian again ventures into the realm of non-human characters with “fairies, a monster, and the ghosts of [the characters’] recently deceased romantic relationships.” In an interview at Work in ProgressAdrian tells Rivka Galchen (another on the “20 under 40” list) that he tends “to think of those sorts of characters—angels and ghosts and fetuses and talking bagels—as human in pretty ordinary ways, though it always feels like a tall order to write well enough about them that the reader will see them that way, too.”
While there are some other interesting tidbits about the new book and Adrian's writing, my favorite part comes with this fantastically personal answer:
I had the idea for the novel long before I figured out how to write it or became possessed of the sustained inspiration necessary to bring it out of the realm of daydreams into actual words that other people could read. What brought both of those things about was the disintegration of my relationship with my boyfriend. The novel became a sort of open letter to him about why it was in the universe’s best interest that we get back together, and at the same time it was a sort of weapon of mass emotional destruction aimed, rather angrily, at his heart.
A “sort of weapon of mass emotional destruction”…does it get any better than that?
Extra: A Bookslutinterview with Adrian from 2008.
(Thanks, Maud Newton.)
Source: Work in Progress
10/8/2010 12:18:05 PM
When you read a Western novel, you know that cowboy hats may be involved, and when you read Southern lit you might expect the appearance of a moss-covered mansion. But these sorts of expectations from readers and publishers can be frustrating for writers who don’t want to fill their books with clichés.
North Carolina novelist Clyde Edgerton gets at this in an amusing exchange with writer Amy Frykholm at the Christian Century:
What is happening now in Southern fiction?
Fiction writers are still dealing with that species of animal called human in a hot place where there’s plenty of reactionary fundamentalism and family loyalty and a history of living close to the land, along with a poverty that often finds little hope in the promise of America.
You once said, “Because I was born in the South, I’m a Southerner. If I had been born in the North, the West or the Central Plains, I would be just a human being.” Do we make too much of Southern culture generally or of Southern literature in particular?
Maybe we do make too much of it—because it’s often loud and, in the case of good fiction, accurate. Whereas various media interpretations of the South are sometimes only loud. It’s always a bit of a downer for me when those not from the South start talking about front porches and sweet iced tea and quirky characters. I visualize the caricatured life and predict the next string of dead mule generalizations.
Western writer Laura Pritchett makes a more pitched complaint in “The Western Lit Blues” in High Country News:
I’m a writer who writes about the West and the people out here. You know, the tough outdoorsy folks who populate Western books. People who hunt, camp, ride horses, and love to gut fish. Men and women who live on ranches or fall in love with ranchers. Or the folks who have a kayak on their Subaru and suntan marks on their feet from Chaco sandals, and the people who fall in love with suntanned, Subaru-driving kayakers.
… But I have to say: Even though I am similar to my fictional counterparts, I am also not them. There’s more going on with life out here in the West than is often rendered in books. We Westerners are more complex and worldly and unique than what I sometimes find on the page, frankly. And as a writer, a reader, an observer, and a half-assed cultural critic, I’m starting to get a little worried.
Pritchett acknowledges that some of her peers are broadening their scope—“the oil drillers of Alexandra Fuller’s nonfiction, the odd lovers in Rick Bass’ novels, the Spanish-infused language and Chicano influence in Aaron Abeyta’s poetry”—so it’s not that writers can’t and won’t push boundaries. It’s just that a self-perpetuating mythology can stifle artistic innovation:
Co-creation. That’s what I’ve been thinking about lately. How books create our self-identity, and our identity gets captured in books, and back and forth it goes like some frenzied feeding machine. I read, I reflect, I transfer. So do you. Books and life feed each other, and then they create a monster of an ideology that we feel obligated to live up to.
Sources: Christian Century, High Country News
Image by crowt59, licensed under Creative Commons.
10/6/2010 1:55:01 PM
Lobbying for the rights of the persecuted is usually considered a noble endeavor, but when the persecuted are defined as Americans sporting a handlebar, a Fu Manchu, or a pencil mustache, it might seem a little ridiculous.
And it kind of is. But it also kind of isn’t. Aaron Perlut is the chairman of the American Mustache Institute, where he “campaigns against anti-mustache discrimination across the land—he's saved jobs from threatening employers and high school careers from anti-mustache deans—and generally tries to revive the 'stache as a prominent element of American male fashion.”
During a tongue-in-cheek, but at times serious, interview with The Atlantic, Perlut described how he has saved peoples’ jobs and preserved certain rights by lobbying on their behalf. For example, a 16-year-old in the Royce City school district in Texas was removed from his high school class because of a policy banning mustaches. The AMI fought for his cause, the policy was overturned, and the kid became somewhat of a hero among his classmates.
In the end, though, it seems like the AMI is unsurprisingly about having a good laugh about the absurdity of certain facial hair fashions. Each e-mail sent out by the organization includes this disclaimer after the sign-off:
AMI supports healthy, performance enhancing-free mustaches that contain no pesticides. While the vast majority of mustache wearers have highly positive responses from friends, exotic dancers and grade school teachers, mustaches should be worn at your own risk, understanding that AMI is not responsible for mustaches that make men look like child molesters or Dave Navarro. Wearing a "Dictator" mustache may lead to repeated beatings, and women are encouraged to avoid wearing mustaches if looking for male companionship or hoping to find employment outside of waste collection.
Source: The Atlantic
Image by livingonimpulse, licensed under Creative Commons.
10/1/2010 2:19:11 PM
Moby Lives has some background on one of the weirder and more disturbing publishing stories in a long time. What do you call it when the government buys out the entire first printing of a book –in this case Anthony Shaffer’s Operation Dark Heart—in return for the publisher’s agreement to destroy every one of the copies? Munificent censorship, maybe? A particularly ugly but perfectly legal bit of capitalist monkeyshines?
It sure sounds like a cut-and-dry case of censorship to me, but this attempt at an explanation from Thomas Dunne, publisher of St. Martin’s Press, is pretty curious, to say the least:
We have been receiving letters of concern that we changed the text due to government censorship, and that the government “burned” the books from our initial printing. The true facts are that the government bought the entire first printing in its entirety and we destroyed and recycled those copies at their request.
Source: Moby Lives
Image by altemark, licensed under Creative Commons.
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