NOº 5673

Desert Island Five: Novels


If I were stranded on a desert island, I’d need these five novels to keep me company:

  • The Known World, Edward P. Jones
  • High Fidelity, Nick Hornby
  • White Teeth, Zadie Smith
  • The Passion, Jeanette Winterson
  • The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje

I must admit: I’m pleased with myself that my list of Desert Island Five novels includes Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, which itself starts with its protagonist, Rob Gifford, listing his Desert Island Five all-time heartbreaks. The genius of that book is its unflinching and unerring insight into the mentality of a certain kind of man. Actually: its genius is its unflinching insight into the prevailing male mentality that has been around since, oh, The Beginning of Time.

Surely it is biochemical, our desire to rank and categorize. Surely it still plays itself out in barrios and savannahs just as it does in suburbs and metropolises (and memoirs). Men in particular are known to measure out the value of a thing, compare it to other more or less valuable things. From this, we compile lists, rankings, categories. In Rob Gifford’s case, one set of those more or less valuable things happens to be women. Regardless of what we are objectifying, we do it 1) because we are trying to make the world a little less mysterious and 2) because, by and large, the language of mystery is foreign and frightening to most of us. Continue reading

NOº 5670

Desert Island Five: Short-Story Collections


If I were stranded on a desert island, I’d need these five short-story collections to keep me company:

  • No One Belongs Here More Than You, Miranda July
  • Self-Help, Lorrie Moore
  • The Best American Short Stories: 1991, Alice Adams, ed.
  • Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Nine Stories, J. D. Salinger

Allow me to begin by offering up something that may be obvious: a novel is a story but a story isn’t necessarily a novel. Voltaire (or somebody) is supposed to have written to a friend, “Forgive the long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.” The compression of a short story requires discipline, patience, and above all time. What you decide to leave out is often so much more important than what you keep. Continue reading

NOº 5661

Desert Island Five: Poetry


If I were stranded on a desert island, I’d need these five poetry collections to keep me company:

  • Human Wishes by Robert Hass
  • Song by Brigit Pegeen Kelly
  • Ariel: The Restored Edition by Sylvia Plath
  • Elegy by Larry Levis
  • Corinna A-maying the Apocalypse by Darcie Dennigan

I believe there are pretty much two kinds of poems: Poems That Make Sense and Poems That Don’t Make Sense. That seems like a value judgment, but it’s not. Not really. The former kind of poem is the linear, logical kind most of us learned about in school. Often it’s narrative. Often it has a clear “point” to make: Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. It tends to be regular in all (or most) of the ways a poem can be regular.

The latter kind of poem—a Poem That Doesn’t Make Sense—is a different animal altogether. It is interested mainly in intuitive leaps, in tone, atmosphere, “vibe.” It is necessarily irregular. Syncopated.

I like both kinds of poems. I tend to write the latter. Continue reading

NOº 5625

101-Word Review: ‘The Second Machine Age’

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant TechnologiesThe Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars. On one level, this is a book about how humans think: which of our multiple intelligences are becoming more valuable, which we’re ceding to machines. Here’s Brynjolfsson in an interview: “Historically, education in America has focused on getting people to follow instructions, sitting in rows and listening to what the teacher explains….Simply following instructions is something that software is pretty good at…that’s not where you want to be competing.” Machines aren’t better thinkers. They’re better at knowing and following the rules. This book argues we need to break rules better by leveraging our peculiar capacity for effort, experimentation, embracing the unknown.

NOº 5619

30 Things I Love Right Now: [02.01.15]

Re-reading Robert Hass’s Human Wishes from start-to-finish. | (2) How a good book, of any kind, changes with you. Over time. | (3) Having art assignments. | (4) A major upswing in the sensory nature of my dreams. I can’t remember when I’ve tasted and smelled so much, so intensely, in that Otherworld. It could be because of Food Network, but I think it’s because I’ve actually been pretty good about meditating lately. I’d like it to be that, anyway. | (5) This particular line from Human Wishes, in a poem called “Spring Rain” — “…the unstated theme was the blessedness of gathering and the blessing of dispersal— // it made you glad for beauty like that, casual and intense, lasting as long as the poppies last.” | (6) Gathering. | (7) Dispersal. | (8) A quiet weekend. Quiet except for… (9) …the sawing sounds I will be producing later, ostensibly to do some large-scale pruning of the crape myrtle in front of my house, but really I’ll be gathering raw material for #3 above. | (10) Thomas Merton’s When the Trees Say Nothing. | (11) The Practice Retreat I’m planning in Gorham’s Bluff this summer. | (12) Tidying up. | (13) Ham. Okay? Ham. On a nice, crusty roll. With swiss cheese. | (14) When an old friend asks for a book recommendation and I get it right. | (15) Green ink. | (16) Walking meditation. | (17) Speaking of ink and Human Wishes and changing: my handwriting now, but not then. First of all: I hate writing in books now but, for some reason, in college, I did it. So there’s my quavering, loopy hand in the Hass book, documenting quavering, loopy ideas I don’t agree with anymore. They’re not wrong, these ideas. It’s fine for somebody else to think them. It’s also funny, odd, enlightening when that somebody else is (was?) me. | (18) Portlandia. Especially… | (19) Jeff Goldblum cameos. | (20) A string of sunny days. | (21) My old car. Thank you, car. | (22) Getting to know my parents better, posthumously. Which is to say… (23) …the breadcrumb trails of Experience and deoxyribonucleic acid. | (24) The Nerd Herd. Still crazy, after all these years. | (25) Feeling smart and clueless all at the same time. | (26) Feeling exceptional and ordinary at the same time. Which is to say… (27) …feeling a little less mutual exclusivity (e.g., gathering AND dispersal, casual AND intense) and therefore… (28) …feeling a little less like a hypocrite. | (29) Kam Chancellor. | (30) The new drop ceiling in the lecture hall at the school where I teach.

NOº 5613

30 Things I Love Right Now: [01.01.15]


(1) My sisters and their husbands. | (2) My niece. | (3) My nephew. | (4) Leonardo Bechara, the dog. (Something like my nephew once removed?) His expressive eyes especially. | (5) Fifi’s hummus. | (6) Homemade hummus: the maiden voyage. It’s not Fifi’s. But it’s inspired by Fifi, and that makes it better than most. | (8) How many vests I have. Now. | (9) How many scarves I have. Now. | (10) Dawn. | (11) Ramak. | (12) Unexpected embarrassment of riches: when people you have taught want to eat a meal with you. | (13) Having taught people. | (14) Which is to say: the saving graces of this strange life. | (15) How beautiful a man Bob Marley was. I’m talking about facial structure here. Just totally superficial. My gosh. (Peter Tosh!) | (16) Which is to say: Marley. The documentary. | (17) Inside Llewyn Davis. | (18) True Detective. Which is really about men and women, though I’m not sure the creators are 100% in on the joke. I think they are 78% in on it. | (19) The other 22%. | (20) Airships by Barry Hannah. | (21) Televised images of the San Gabriel mountains. On New Year’s Day. Time-honored. | (22) Impromptu faux paella. | (23) Gorham’s Bluff, Alabama. | (24) Wild Strawberries. | (25) Macerated blackberries. | (26) Bibi Andersson. Still. | (27) Frozen shrimp. The protein least degraded by freezing. | (28) A real nap. | (29) Mystery. | (30) Feeling, for no reason I can figure, that I’m playing with house money.

NOº 5593

30 Things I Love Right Now: [12.22.14]


(1) Remembering things I always seem to forget. Namely… (2) Writing things out by hand helps me. It helps me focus, it helps me slow down, it helps me breathe, it helps me hear the right kind of silence. When I write things out by hand, I’m being my artist self… (3) Actually going to the movies helps me. First because of people (this is why airports spark my creativity too): the steady thrum of people and all their stories. Second because of public mainstream art and entertainment and, I suppose, cultural capital. Third because it challenges me: my storyteller mind turns on and watches that way, which I suppose it does if I’m just sitting in my house, but it’s really that the storyteller mind comes out to play in public, with all those other stories swirling around. It’s like taking a dog to the dog park versus taking him for a walk in your neighborhood or just letting him out back… (4) Reading helps me. Communion, one storyteller mind to another… (5) A good pen (or, if you prefer the Southern idiom: ink pen) helps me, just holding it but also the line it makes… (6) Social media brown-outs help me… (7) A clean house helps me… (8) Silence helps me… (9) I come by my peculiarities and peccadilloes honestly… (10) Surely there are other remembrances I’m (still/already) forgetting; I love them right now too… | (11) Ingmar Bergman. Who, seen in the right light, at the right angle, was the spitting image of my father. Whose old-man manifestation was a manifestation of the sensitive-soul version of my old man. | (12) The Seventh Seal. | (13) Bibi Andersson. | (14) George Harrison. | (15) The documentary on him that Scorsese did. | (16) Thinking about the 20th Century, now that we’ve reached escape velocity. | (17) Twelve Years a Slave. | (18) The McQueen-Fassbender consortium, and what they’re willing to say, do, make together. (19) Communion as a central metaphor, creative aspiration, remembered mantra. | (20) The dark meat of the bird. | (21) The feminine mystique. | (22) But also Julia Child. | (23) In particular, Julia Child on the Letterman show. | (24) The old-school Polaroid camera winging my way, across the vast space and time of the internet. | (25) Crayons. | (26) Jiro Dreams of Sushi. | (27) A plane ticket. | (28) Speaking of prominent Georges of the 20th Century, there’s the lasso-the-moon scene in It’s a Wonderful Life. (Please see: #21 above [“What’d you wish for, Mary?”] and #16 above [“And then I’m gonna build things!”]) | (29) My new cheese grater. | (30) What my friend Laura’s doing these days, inspired and inspiring.

Happy happy to everyone…

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? Continue reading