NOº 5585

101-Word Review: ‘TransAtlantic’

TransAtlanticTransAtlantic by Colum McCann

My rating: 5 of 5 stars. TransAtlantic was dissed by NPR’s Maureen Corrigan for being too smooth. McCann is nothing if not a craftsman, and that’s no more apparent than at the sentence level, where each lapidary line is polished to a shimmer. That could come across as too…something. But it doesn’t. Not to me. In all his books — even ones I don’t like quite as much, like Dancer — McCann comes across as a novelist’s novelist. A somewhat less chimerical Michael Ondaatje. In TransAtlantic, McCann’s enthusiastic eye for beauty is on full display, as his passion for examining — and, in the examining, exalting — the otherwise unexamined life.

NOº 5573

30 Things I Love Right Now: [12.14.14]


(1) Saying crazy things like, “We’re going to re-invent creativity,” and meaning it. Not so much to the letter, but certainly in spirit. In my life, there’s always been a shadow side to my creative impulse: meanness, envy, desperation, doubt, and fear. I don’t want to pretend it’s not there. I just want to know more about it, where it comes from, how it gets in the way, what it wants from me. I’d also like a more expansive definition of creative value, and I’d like to be more conscious (and less self-conscious) of the role God/spirit/transcendence plays in what I make — in why I make what I make. Not in a hocus-pocus, burning bush, “He did this!” bumper-sticker sort of way. It’s just that I’m always writing about two things: God and love. Lots of folks would say those are the same thing. I create things because I want to inch closer to those things, that thing. This impulse is not original to me. I didn’t invent it. It’s me joining the human family, every time I sit down to write or fumble over the strings on my guitar, and it’s me joining that same expanse of love when I make things in the company of other people. When I tell them what I think I know about making things, when I make their making as important as my own. To re-invent creativity, I have to start with me, relentlessly, with finding ways to surrender to this impulse. Amen. A salaam alaikum. | (2) Speaking of God and love: this trailer (homily) from this movie (poem). (“You shall love…whether you like it or not…) | (3) Stringed instruments and their particular kind of singing. | (4)In Accordance to Natural Law” by Bikini Kill. A particular kind of singing. | (5) Mother Sauces. (I saw them open for Bikini Kill in Tacoma back in ’93. We thought they were gonna be HUGE.) | (6) Standing jokes and other puns. (Which is the title of my next collection of stories.) | (7) Not really: it’s called Communion. (Please see #1 above, vis-a-vis God and love, etc.) It’ll be out in 2016, and, yes, I love it right now. | (8) Also writing new stories. Stories that are raw and influenced by an eclectic set of women writers (some published, some not [yet]) who are braver and more honest than I have been in my own writing. | (9) I bought another vest! On the internet! Which means I’ll soon have two (2) vests in my collection of vests! | (10) TransAtlantic by Colum McCann, who’ll rock the scarf on you, any day, any time, any outfit. | (11) Which is to (also) say: scarves. I totally lost my one scarf, though, which means my big dreams of amassing a scarf collection have taken a hit. (List of big dreams: (1) re-invent creativity (2) amass scarf collection…) But I guess they still make scarves, right? When in doubt, if you want to get me a gift, get me a scarf. Not even kidding. Even some of those crazy gauzy ones McCann wears. (You can get me a vest, too. 42R.) | (12) Lobbying for Christmas presents. On the internet. Clearly. | (13) Picking on Tom Brady. | (14) Which is to say: tilting at windmills (still, always), on the internet. | (15) Sunday morning at the grocery store. | (16) Prosciutto baked in the oven for five minutes at 425°. Super-delicate bacon. (Saw them open for Quiet Riot at the Cap Centre back in ’84…) | (17)  Layering. | (18) Beloved adjuncts, recruiting them, exhorting them, even though they probably think I’m crazy. (“Re-invent creativity? What the hell is this guy talking about?”) | (19) Mm. Mmartone. | (20) How Stuart said Chewie reminds him of Will Belford, and it’s true. He is just like Will Belford. | (21) Mostly that a character I wrote has stuck around in someone’s imagination, much less someone who’s imagination I admire a great deal. That’s a cool feeling. | (22) The permeable wall between fiction and what’s real. | (23) Tomato soup with roasted poblanos and corn. And croutons. All homemade, of course. | (24) A better metaphor for the relationship between fiction and reality: musical chairs. With one chair. Best of five series. And we all know: anything can happen in a short series. | (25) American Movie. Exhortation. Cautionary tale. | (26)The Book of Daniel.” Exhortation. Cautionary tale. | (27) Which is to say: Bill Simmons channeling his earlier days. | (28) Ice water. | (29) Mystery Train by Jim Jarmusch. (Hat tip: Jack Y– .) | (30) This time of year. Which is to say: halftime.

NOº 5564

FYI/411: Imbalance Is the New Balance


Everything I read is an advertisement, it seems. Today I read this:

It’s an article in Sports Illustrated about an American football player called Tom Brady. He is handsome, he has a marketable skill, and he is married to a supermodel called Gisele Bundchen. In the western world in 2014, he is the epitome of…something.

The question is: what?

Full disclosure: I like football and I think Tom Brady is very good at it. I even admire him for it. It’s very hard to be good at football. What he does is difficult and dangerous. Like flying an airplane or fighting fires.

The article documents the lengths to which Tom Brady goes to be good at football. Or really more than that: the article documents the lengths to which Tom Brady goes to fend off death and irrelevance. These are long lengths. He goes to bed at 9 pm every night (and he wakes up without an alarm!), even though he has two young children and even though all his gyrations and excesses throughout the day have made it difficult for him to “wind down.” So he has had someone design him some special cognitive exercises that will allow him to go to sleep, probably before his children and his supermodel wife go to sleep. He eats seeds and avocado shakes; he strives to keep his diet 80% alkaline and 20% acidic (which needless to say is complicated and requires the daily guidance of a professional nutritionist). You can read the article, but suffice it to say that the man’s focus on his own body and brain, as it relates to his profession, is both extraordinary (which has a positive connotation) and extreme (which doesn’t). But here’s the kicker: the article wants you to believe that everything Tom Brady does is in the service of — wait for it — balance.

Hmmm. If there is one perfect example of life out of balance in the western world it is the National Football League. It is violent, extreme, volatile. Tom Brady has geared his life to succeed in the NFL, and he has a very hard time imagining his life without that violence, extremity, that week-to-week volatility. Not only that, he wants to keep succeeding in the NFL long beyond the natural limitations most elite athletes must confront.

This article is trying to sell me the idea that Tom Brady is Tom Brady because he has unlocked the secret to a balanced (even spiritual) life. What’s more, the article ends with the idea that Tom Brady aspires to sell this idea — literally — after his football days are over. Lectures. Workshops. Infomercials, maybe. I think it’s moderately important for somebody to call bullshit on this whole thing. In lieu of somebody better than me, I guess I’ll go ahead and do it. So here goes:


I don’t think Tom Brady is a bad person. I do think he’s an obsessive, self-absorbed person, and I don’t think his life is balanced. I think that makes him a lot like the rest of us. He’s just on TV and he has more money than God. That’s all. He will get old and die just like Jay Cutler, just like the rest of us. Balance is elusive in this world. If you want to find it, you’d probably be better served looking elsewhere. The Pope, maybe. Somebody who spends most of his time tending to the sick or to crazy people. Maybe a good teacher in a failing school. Somebody like that. I do think it’s a good idea to go to bed early, though. So here I go. Just like Tom Brady. Good night and good luck.

NOº 5558

30 Things I Love Right Now: [11.30.14]


(1) Writing something longhand on the plane. | (2) Airports. | (3) Air travel. | (4) The way air travel and airports stir my impulse to write something. | (5) Deciding not to flinch every time I expect to see my dog and she’s not there. | (6) Deciding instead to believe that she is there, in her Obi-Wan Kenobi sort of way. | (7) The transformative power of language arts, which it turns out is a codified thing. But mostly what I mean is that it is a saving grace, in real time. For me. In particular. I feel better when I am writing, I feel better having written. I don’t know what I would do or who I would be without it. Speaking of saving graces… | (8) My sister, Tina, and her friends and extended family, which she so generously shares with me. | (9) My sister, Lita, and her friends and extended family, which she so generously shares with me. | (10) This ritual: Chesapeake Bagel Bakery with Michel then the short drive to Reagan National for my return flight. The conversation that we have, which is the same conversation but it has evolved over time. | (11) Reagan National. | (12) Falafel Friday. | (13) Kibbeh Nayyeh. | (14) Listening to conversations in Arabic. | (15) The ritual of writing down 30 things I love right now, which is, itself, a saving grace. | (16) Noticing the ways the ritual of 30 Things has influenced the way I write. Maybe it’s a chicken-or-egg question: do I write this way because of the 30 Things or do the 30 Things happen because I write this way? But still: associative leaps, doubling back, anaphora, numbering, allusions, epiphanies, etc. | (17) This quote, still, from Allen Ginsberg: “The parts that embarrass you the most are usually the most interesting poetically, are usually the most naked of all, the rawest, the goofiest, the strangest and most eccentric and at the same time, most representative, most universal…That was something I learned from Kerouac, which was that spontaneous writing could be embarrassing…The cure for that is to write things down which you will not publish and which you won’t show people. To write secretly…so you can actually be free to say anything you want…It means abandoning being a poet, abandoning your careerism, abandoning even the idea of writing any poetry, really abandoning, giving up as hopeless — abandoning the possibility of really expressing yourself to the nations of the world. Abandoning the idea of being a prophet with honor and dignity, and abandoning the glory of poetry and just settling down in the muck of your own mind…You really have to make a resolution to write for yourself…, in the sense of not writing to impress yourself, but just writing what your self is saying.” | (18) What myself is saying. | (19) Though I haven’t mastered the “write secretly” part, I am finding ways to feel freer to say anything I want. | (20) The steady stream of reminders that facing and feeling loss is one of those ways. | (21) Dressing like a man. | (22) Packing light. | (23) Trying not to use so many words (this 30 Things notwithstanding). | (24) “Sea Oak” by George Saunders. | (25) What George Saunders has to say about writing, writers, himself, the world. | (26) The Suburbs by the Arcade Fire. Still. Again. Always. | (27) Confessions. Which is perhaps the opposite of what Ginsberg is saying. Not the opposite. Different. But also related. | (28) Crying very, very hard. How it breaks open your heart. | (29) The good people at the vet, especially that Ivy was there to lend a shoulder to cry on. | (30) Scout-the-dog, who broke open my heart.

NOº 5550

30 Things I Love Right Now: [11.21.14]


(1) Fresh limes. | (2) Sisters. | (3) Sister Sledge. | (4) Exuberance. | (5) Confessions. | (6) St. Augustine. | (7) Original (and abiding) sins. | (8) Writing raw. Come what may. | (9) Diane Goettel. Still and always. | (10) Intercessories. | (11) The part in John’s gospel, where Mary Magdalene sees Jesus and she holds him and he says don’t hold me because I haven’t ascended to my Father yet. | (12) That I would have Mary Magdalene hold me and I would have my Father wait. Which is why I am no risen savior. | (13) Not being a risen savior. | (14) Cooking. Cooking bad. Cooking well. Spilling shit. Cutting my finger. A perfect sear. All of it. | (15) Singing. Out loud. To no one. | (16) Right but: J– and E–, who arrived on time. Regardless. I don’t know what to make of them yet. I just know this feeling and I dwell in it and it helps me move along my path. Which is huge. Come what may. | (17) Home. Which is a specific place. 38.8951° N, 77.0367° W. | (18) Jon Jay Gruden. (Jon. Jay. Tomato, tomahtoe.) Anyway. Poor bastard. | (19) Turnips. | (20) D. Boon. Still and always. | (21) Mike Watt. Still + Always. | (22) Golf. Still/Always. | (23) Holding a golf club. | (24) Stuart. Still, always. | (25) Playing golf, with Stuart, in the cold. | (26) My new cold-weather golf garb. | (27) Cold weather! | (28) That one Pearl Jam record. With the avocado on it. | (30) These crazy kids at this crazy art school where I teach. How they’re better than I’ll ever be. Still. Always. Amen.

NOº 5547

101-Word Review: ‘A New Christianity for a New World’

A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith is Dying & How a New Faith is Being BornA New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith is Dying & How a New Faith is Being Born by John Shelby Spong

My rating: 5 of 5 starsBishop Spong’s voice calls out from the wilderness, but it’s not shouting, “Repent!” It’s pleading with us to awaken to a new commitment to love. Shedding the skin of a personal god isn’t easy for most god-fearers, but Spong believes the theistic notion of God is, in fact, an increasingly ineffectual palliative for a deeply rooted, deeply human brand of self-consciousness. As we move past our collective fear and neurosis, past our pathological need to know everything, past our literal-minded fundamentalisms, Spong believes we can experience the Unknown as a new freedom, a new faith, a true and sustaining new hope.

NOº 5530

101-Word Review: ‘Gone Girl’

Gone GirlGone Girl by Gillian Flynn

My rating: 2 of 5 stars. NPR movie critic Bob Mondello said this about director David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl: “By the end of Gone Girl, the social issues that animate the film’s beginning — job loss in an economic downturn, differences in wealth and class, media manipulation — have receded, and things have gotten so plot-driven and pulpy, there’s nothing to challenge the director or make him stretch.” Turns out that’s not Fincher’s fault. It’s baked into the pie, as Flynn’s novel similarly loses its bearings late. What’s more, Flynn wrote the screenplay, too—thus cinching Fincher’s mysterious fidelity to her clever but flawed storyline.


NOº 5525

30 Things I Love Right Now: [11.02.14]

(1) A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith Is Dying & How a New Faith Is Being Born by John Shelby Spong. | (2) A slurry. | (3) Breakfast on Pluto by Patrick McCabe. | (4) Falling back. | (5) That and an actual chill in the air. | (6) A new challenge. | (7) My dream life. By which I mean to say: the world I have lately been inhabiting in my sleep. An extraordinarily corporeal place. | (8) Soppressata. (Still.) | (9) Planning for Thanksgiving. | (10) Golf. | (11) Title IX. | (12) The Grand Budapest Hotel. | (13) A clean kitchen. To cook in. | (14) Clean laundry. | (15) Play-by-play texting, even if the result I have to report disappoints my friend on the other end, a long-suffering Razorback. | (16) People who live two or more lifetimes in one. Who push themselves into different shapes and predicaments and live to tell the tale. Which is to say: our unsung saints and intercessories. | (17) A nice, clean haircut. | (18) My new (and only) vest. (Here’s hoping I can muster up the courage to wear it in public one of these days.) | (19) When my old and ailing dog can put her head down and rest, especially when she rests her head on my pillow. | (20) Coffee and cream. | (21) Rice and gravy. | (22) Central Florida in October. (As I suspected.) | (23) My new hiking shoes. | (24) Sweater weather! | (25) Good people vouching for me, exhorting me, believing in me. | (26) Fresh tomatoes and salt. | (27) Rosemary and thyme. | (28) Smoked paprika. (Still.) | (29) Anchovies. | (30) My hat, in the ring, come what may.

NOº 5522

101-Word Review: ‘Lincoln’s Melancholy’

Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His GreatnessLincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk

My rating: 5 of 5 starsNot unlike Kay Redfield Jamison’s excellent Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, Lincoln’s Melancholy is a holistic consideration of how temperament shapes us, our thoughts and deeds; how the cultural assignations of “genius” and “affliction” are complex, mutable, and very often two sides of the same coin. That the Great Emancipator was, in fact, shackled in his early years by the back-and-forth lurching between despondency and hypomania is certainly food for thought. That he settled into his destiny, using this great range of emotion to right the ship of our listing nation, that’s why he’s still a hero.

NOº 5513

101-Word Review: ‘Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls’

Unclean Jobs for Women and GirlsUnclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting

My rating: 5 of 5 starsRaw but not strident. Raw not in the sense of underdone, half-baked: in fact, these stories are superbly crafted and in control, sentence to sentence, page to page. No, they’re raw in the best way: the way that shows us our obscenities and absurdities, in the flesh, and makes us feel like laughing, feel like crying, feel like screaming. All three at once and then some. This is a book that stays with you long after you put it down, and if you’re a writer, it will make you want to write, to write like you really mean it this time.