Category: prose

Isn’t life,” she stammered, “isn’t life–” But what life was she couldn’t explain.


Katherine Mansfield, in “The Garden-Party.” I’ve been wrapped up this week in NaNoWriMo, about one-tenth of the way into the novel I will supposedly have written by the end of this month. So far it’s been going quite well; after some early jitters regarding pacing – I felt I was moving much to fast – I have settled into a good rhythm. I hope by next week I’ll really hit my stride. Like most people, I think, I look for inspiration and help in lines and quotes from my favorite authors, little things to provide motivation or jostle the brain into literary life.

One of my most inspirational quotes as a writer is this one from Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Garden-Party.” Mansfield was a writer who dabbled in epiphany, years before Woolf and Joyce had really stepped into that realm of writing. Here in this example the main character has been slapped on the head with epiphany so profound she’s rendered speechless. I think we’ve all had these moments; where you look out on the world and find it so beyond description that you’re dumbstruck. For me, as a writer, this is what I seek. The irony, if you can call it that, is that it’s obviously quite hard to describe something that is indescribable, so the writer is left in a bit of a quandary. Still, though I think this is what really good literature does, or tries to do – it describes the indescribable.

By the way, if you’ve never read anything by Mansfield and you enjoy books by Woolf, Joyce, poetry by Eliot, etc. – do yourself a favor and pick something up of hers. I guarantee you will love it.

Book Report: The Song of the World by Jean Giono

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I have tried to make a story of adventure in which there should be absolutely nothing ‘timely.’ The present time disgusts me, even to describe. It is sufficient merely to endure it. I wanted to make a book with new mountains, a new river, a country, forest, snow and men all new. The most consoling thing is that I have not had to invent anything at all, not even the people. They all exist. That is what I want to say here. At this very time when Paris flourishes – and that is nothing to be proud of – there are people in the world who know nothing of the horrible mediocrity into which civilization, philosophers, public speakers and gossips have plunged the human race. They think only of adding to their comfort, heedless that one day true men will come up from the river and down from the mountain, more implacable and more bitter than the grass of the apocalypse.
– Jean Giono, 1937

This quote can be found on the back cover of the paperback version of Giono’s French adventure/pastoral novel Song of the World. Not only does it explain, in a roundabout way, the purpose of his novel, but it gives precise definition to his overall philosophy and motivation as a writer. His motivation is not unusual: the motivation of most writers is to create a world that is parallel to ours, but molded in the authors own image. The author wishes to play god in his own little world, so to speak. What strikes me in Giono’s statement is the ferocity with which he expresses his motivation, and the anger he throws at the “modern world.”

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Book Report: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

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The first thing I’ll say about this book is that I have rarely experienced so intensely the feeling, after finishing the book, of not wanting to leave its confines. In this case, my desire to stay in 18th century Nagasaki was so intense that even though I finished the book about two weeks ago I’ve been unable to start reading anything new; any other set or scenery just bores me after a few pages. I have the same feeling whenever I finish something by Jean Giono (report forthcoming) – leaving his mythical world of Provence after diving so deeply into it is jarring to the system. Similarly, reading something like Anna Karenina, which envelops you for hundreds of pages in its cloak of wintry Russian aristocracy, is hard to leave behind. I think that might be the highest praise you can give any book.

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Standing at the fruit and veggies stand with Laura waiting for our sweet corn to be shucked and bagged up, I noticed the little cartons of fat, ripe blackberries just waiting for some lucky soul to eat them up. It made me think of one of my absolute favorite poems, “Blackberry Eating” by Galway Kinnell. I also stumbled across another poem just yesterday, this one by Seamus Heaney, called “Blackberry-Picking.” I wondered, there at the fruit stand, what the two poems would look like back-to-back. So, here they are:


for Philip Hobsbraum

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

~ ~ ~

Blackberry Eating

I love to go out in late September
among fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched or broughamed,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.

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Book Review: “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway

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Take Hemingway. People always think that the reason he’s easy to read is that he is concise. He isn’t. I hate conciseness — it’s too difficult. The reason Hemingway is easy to read is that he repeats himself all the time, using ‘and’ for padding.
-Tom Wolfe

As to Hemingway, I read him for the first time in the early ‘forties, something about bells, balls and bulls, and loathed it.
-Vladimir Nabokov

I’m pointing out a couple of the common insults flung at Hemingway not to say they’re false – they’re true to a point – but to illustrate what one is up against when one tries to defend Hemingway and make a case for his writing. The author has become so polarizing that American readers have basically split into two camps:

1) Those who agree that Hemingway, along with his ex-pat pals like Fitzgerald, had in the 20s, 30s, and 40s brought about a refreshing change to literature, exchanging the over-wrought and ungainly prose of turn-of-the-century America, Britain, and France (looking at you Proust, Henry James) for a modern, precise, descriptive and quietly poetic style that has carried us forward into the current era of literature.

2) Those who believe as Wolfe and Nabokov do, that Hemingway was basically a chauvinist with a conjunction fetish. Once he was six feet under the Sawtooth Mountains, in 1961, it seems this second group dominated Hemingway discussions; that is, everybody just seems to make fun of him now. Between mocking his declarative style and bemoaning his macho pursuits (“bells, balls, and bulls” as Nabokov so awesomely put it), it seems a Hemingway appreciator – or one totally new to the man’s language – has a hard mountain to climb, and may just prefer to sit it out in the end.

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Book Review: Kafka On the Shore by Haruki Murakami

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Man I’m really on a roll with these book reviews! This one’s pretty easy, though, check it out: WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED?! Review over.

Just kidding. Actually, here is my reenactment of the entire novel (SPOILERS?):

Kafka: Are you my mother?
Person who may be his mother: No. Yes. Maybe?
Kafka: Should we have sex?
Person who may be his mother: Sure.

Kafka: And you, are you my sister?
Person who may be his sister: No. Yes. Maybe?
Kafka: Should we have sex?
Person who may be his sister: Why not?

Kafka: And you, are you a boy or a girl?
Person who may be a boy or a girl: Boy. Girl. Both?

Kafka: Am I dead?
Everybody: No. Yes. Maybe?

Kafka: Seriously, what is with this book?
The Reader: An excruciatingly psychoanalytic look at the angst and existential nature of the pubescent teenager?
Kafka: Maybe…
The Reader: Modern retelling of Oedipus Rex?
Kafka: Eh…
The Reader: Japanese writers are crazy?
Kafka: That’s the ticket.

You just keep being you, Mr. Murakami. And I’ll keep reading.

For Whom the Hemingway Tolls


I am reading my first Ernest Hemingway novel. For Whom the Bell Tolls. It is good so far. It takes place in Spain. I have read all of his short stories which I love, never any of his novels. People are shocked to hear this, however it is true. Yes, not even The Old Man and the Sea. I know I was supposed to read that in high school like everyone else. I did not. I am not sure why. His style takes some time to get used to but is a welcome change after the rambling sentences of so many other books I have read lately. Did you know Hemingway stood up at a desk to write? This seems appropriate to me. When you think about it it just seems right.

I went to Hemingway’s grave high in Sawtooth mountains of Idaho once. It is a slab in the ground with his name on it. This also seems appropriate to me. Further on down the road there is another memorial to him, a bust resting on a pillar in the woods, next to a creek. All the lands and people he visited in his life, and he is buried in Idaho. This is all I have to say about Hemingway for the moment.

Book Review: The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

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The tale is simple: Paul Chowder is a poet. Unassuming, quiet; rather boring, actually. Paul Chowder has collected an anthology of rhyming poems, and is now tasked with writing the introduction to this anthology. He’s having a tough time of it. And his live-in girlfriend has left him out of frustration at his listlessness. He spends his days in the barnhouse loft thinking, singing made-up songs to himself, reading poetry (though unsure he even still likes poetry), doing anything but writing the damned introduction. This is the scenario Nicholson Baker drops us into. Perhaps not the most electrifying plot for a novel, but I’m not so sure this is a novel anyway. In reality it’s more like a fake memoir; something closer to Jim Harrison’s Wolf, except with less drinking and sex. I think making this distinction is important to understanding and liking the book as well. If you go into it expecting something in the way of plot, climax, resolution, etc., well, you’ll probably come away feeling a bit cheated. If you come to this book expecting a good story, however, you will feel sated by the end, full of life and good poetry.

The Anthologist is a rambling, free-form book. This line from the book sums it up quite well, actually:

It’s hard to hold it all in your head. All the different possible ways that you can enjoy life. Or not enjoy life. And all the things that are going on.

It is hard to hold it all in your head sometimes. This book is one person letting it out of his head. I hesitate to even approach the phrase “stream of consciousness” because nothing turns off a casual reader (or even an avid reader) like a STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS narrative. Gah! Get away! Make it stop! Baker’s book has much going for it though that should make you consider adding it to your book list. 1) It’s pretty short. 2) It’s pretty funny. 3) Paul Chowder is simply a likable character. He’s nice, sweet in his own way, and has a sort of innocence to him that you don’t usually see male lead characters carrying. Even when he mucks things up, it’s hard to stay mad at him. This makes the book pleasant to read and think about.

And most importantly 4) it’s about POETRY. Yeah poetry! While the book doesn’t require an encyclopedic knowledge of poetry to enjoy, it insists on an appreciation of poetry and all the fun things that go with it, like language, wordplay, rhyme, meter, and melody. Yes melody. Read the book, you’ll get it. Our Mr. Chowder spends a lot of time talking about poetry. You’ll fall in love with the writings of poets you’ve never read before, like Elizabeth Bishop and W.S. Merwin, and then you will spend a Saturday afternoon collecting their collected works. Probably half the book he spends talking about poetry. Yikes, you say. But don’t worry, you love poetry. If you don’t, this book is not for you. But if you didn’t love poetry, you wouldn’t read my blog, and here you are reading it, so you must love poetry, therefore you will love this book.

Find The Anthologist here.

Newsflash: Nicholas Sparks is an asshole


Pardon my French, as the French say, but COME ON, Nicholas Sparks. It’s bad enough that you inundate our Barnses and Nobleses with your awful, awful, AWFUL books, and you sear our eyeballs with the horrible movies that get made from said books, but now:

I write in a genre that was not defined by me. The examples were not set out by me. They were set out 2,000 years ago by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. They were called the Greek tragedies. A thriller is supposed to thrill. A horror novel is supposed to scare you. A mystery is supposed to keep you turning the pages, guessing ‘whodunit?’ A romance novel is supposed to make you escape into a fantasy of romance. What is the purpose of what I do? These are love stories. They went from (Greek tragedies), to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, then Jane Austen did it, put a new human twist on it. Hemingway did it with A Farewell to Arms.

I’m sorry, did you just put yourself in a category with Sophocles, Shakespeare, Austen, and Hemingway all at once? Are we comparing The Notebook to Electra? Have you ever read Sophocles? He did not write “fantasies of romance.” Unless you count Oedipus Rex, and if you do, that’s just sick buddy. Also, do people actually say “whodunit” out loud, ever? This guy is such a moron even Roger Ebert rips on him. You know you truly suck when even Roger Ebert feels the need to lob some potshots at you. And Ebert’s zingers are just so great.

Then the Lord of the Romances continues:

Sparks pulls [a book] off the shelf. “A Farewell to Arms, by Hemingway. Good stuff. That’s what I write,” he says, putting it back. “That’s what I write.”

Asked what he likes in his own genre, Sparks replies: “There are no authors in my genre. No one is doing what I do.”

Hahahaaaa. Crying and laughing and vomiting together is making my face hurt. I’m sending you my doctor’s bill. Good stuff.

You know, I take it back. I guess you are in a category with the above authors. If the category is “people who use words to construct sentences.” You know who else is in this exclusive club? This six year old kid. Writing books is so easy even a six year old and Nicholas Sparks can do it!

To make matters worse, Nicholas Sparks makes himself a third enemy (the first two enemies are Humankind and Literature, for those keeping score) in Cormac McCarthy by ripping his book Blood Meridian. This man is not even worthy of being on the same continent as Cormac McCarthy. He should be shipped to Antarctica, except then I would feel bad for the penguins. Cormac McCarthy is such a badass I doubt he even gives two shits what some hack like Sparks has to say about him. He’s probably sitting in New Mexico getting drunk and saying, “Nicholas who?” while he spit-shines his Pulitzer. Where’s your Pulitzer Prize, Nicholas Sparks?

Via Videogum’s hilarious post. Read through the comments too. They’re better than anything this guy’s ever written. More of Sparks’ BS here.

Time and Timelessness: Reading Proust from Start to Finish, #1


After staring down Anna Karenina last year I crested a daunting hill and looked down into the valley on the far side. The summit was the overbearing weight and patience needed to tackle the long novel. The valley below was the relief I felt that not only is reading a 700-800-plus page novel not difficult (considering the reader agrees with the author’s subject, pace, style, etc.) it is relaxing, in its own certain way, and it soon becomes familiar – spend so many nights with the same few people and they soon become like family – and therefore a joy to read rather than a burden.

Having made the summit it disappeared and I was left on a flat plain, where the 800-page, multi-volume novel was as accessible as the 80-page novella, and each had its share of worthy merits. I made it my mission to tackle another long-form novel this winter. Keep with Tolstoy and move on to War and Peace? (By the way, if you plan on reading either this or Karenina, go with the recent Pevear/Volokhonsky versions – they’re excellent). Move to the Americas and Moby-Dick? But in the back of my mind there was only one possibility, which was to go for the mother of them all, À la recherche du temps perdu, or, In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust. The name “Proust” is enough to make even the most hardened literary souls quiver. For many his novel represents the highest and hardest task available to any avid reader, and more often than not, judging by anecdotes and reviews, most flounder and drown in Proust’s verbosity, usually finishing only the first volume, Swann’s Way.

Perhaps with good reason: In Search of Lost Time holds the Guinness World Record for Longest Novel with 1.5 million words. Though now, with the internet being what it is – an equalizer of things and a destroyer of all sorts of records – Proust’s distinction is now no longer true, not technically. For example, Artamène, or Cyrus the Great, by Madeline and Georges de Scudery, is 2.1 million words (what’s with these French guys?), but is only available online, in French. The internets reveal all sorts of other astoundingly long novels:

  • The Story of the Vivian Girls, by Harvey Darger, 9 million words
  • The Blah Story, by Nigel Tomm, 11.3 million words
  • Marienbad My Love, by Mark Leach, 17 million words (!?)

These books’ extraordinary lengths hold a few caveats, however. Vivian Girls exists (as far as I know) in handwritten manuscript form only, and The Blah Story just seems to clever and artsy to actually be readable (most of the book’s 11.3 million words are actually one word: “blah.” As in: “In a blah she was blah blah blah down a blah between blah roses blah blah blah, her blah blah hair blah blah gently the blah blah trees, most blah blah blah, she thought, as blah blah he blah the nice blah blah she blah…” Seriously.). Marienbad is published online only, and is an extreme version of the cut-up style of writing, which leads one to wonder whether it is in fact a novel or some other kind of text (which is not to be dismissive of the work, in fact it sounds pretty cool). The title, by the way, of Marienbad includes a rather lengthy subtitle of 6,931 words. And this doesn’t even cover some of the immensely long Japanese and Korean books out there, or the multi-novel epics like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

So then, what we have in Proust is, ahem, the Longest Single Novel Written in the Latin Alphabet and Published in Book Form, and Doesn’t Use the Word “Blah” Millions of Times. There. See, now reading In Search of Lost Time doesn’t seem so bad anymore, does it? Proust is long, but not that long by comparison.

Getting back to the actual reading, the novel begins with the first volume Swann’s Way, which consists for the most part of the narrator’s recollections of his childhood in the fictional country town of Combray, France. The story begins with a dozen or so pages about the act of falling asleep, which is perhaps an ironic and funny way (looked at with postmodern eyes) to start a lengthy tome, but is in fact key to Proust’s thematic development of the formation and use of memory, time, and epiphany. This book was written just after the turn of the century, from 1913-1922, a time when psychoanalysis was just beginning, Europe experienced a major and scarring war, and the physicists began dismantling and recreating the ideas of time and the universe as we knew them. This is the bewildering world into which Modernism was born, and many consider In Search of Lost Time to be the greatest of all Modernist novels.

After Swann’s Way the book continues on for another six volumes, charting a course through the narrator’s life and loves as he navigates the daunting paths of aristocratic France and his own mind. Over a series of posts I hope to cover my impressions on the novel itself as I’m reading it, its joys and difficulties, and talk some about Proust and critical aspects of the novel as I learn more about both, all while keeping it light and inviting and without getting too literary criticism-y.

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