Friday, December 30, 2005

"Chuzzle This," said Duke

Sorry Duke, but I had to write that down since you have said that to me a number of times as I was planning to read Dickens' "Martin Chuzzlewit", and I think it is darned funny. Although I could not possibly explain what it means, and given the tone of it I'm not sure I'd want to.....

Short note here to post the following to the battalions of hangers-on to The Secret Thread. I am currently engaged, as you may note on the right here, in my "Annual Dickens Read" for 2005, although it will technically spill into 2006, unless I can read approximately 700 pages in the next two days. As I've been saying since the summer, this time it is "Chuzzlewit": the only Charles Dickens novel to be partially set in America, released in the early 1840s in serial form, and the first Dickens novel that was ultimately less successful than the novel before it. It was his first 'quasi-dud' in other words, it is interesting to note. I'm not sure why that would be. If you're concerned about that, don't be: the next book he published was "A Christmas Carol" which vaulted him into super-stardom and is still probably the most famous of his books and the most famous Christmas story this side of the Christmas Story itself.

I plan to post on here some notes and thoughts about "Martin Chuzzlewit" upon my conclusion of the book. It is essentially the story of an eccentric rich man and an inheritance, making broad commentary on human nature and greed as people lobby for an old man's money. Should be interesting indeed.

Dickens, or as I like to call him, "Chuck D", was probably the greatest novelist of all time in English. It is a very fun and interesting exercise to read one of his great novels every year, and this is my fourth time doing it. I am looking forward to posting my thoughts and seeing how this novel compares in my own estimation to the others I have read to date, which are, for the record: A Tale of Two Cities (not part of my "Annual" progam), Our Mutual Friend, Bleak House, and Dombey and Son.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Duke Altum's NOTABLE BOOKS OF 2005

This gets harder to pull off every year, but since I have managed to do it for the last two I suppose I better buck up and see if I can push out a third. But how do you narrow down all that you’ve read in the course of one year into a neat, convenient list of the “10 Best”? Answer: you can’t. However, you can recommend some particularly good ones that stand out in your memory from recent months past, titles that you feel would be of others’ benefit to know about. So that’s what my list is going to be this year: a smattering of books that provide unique and fascinating insights into our common condition, into a particular region or historical period, into spiritual or moral questions, or into subjects various and sundry and interesting… in fact, the best of the lot may just cover all of those categories.

So without any further effusions, here are ten noteworthy and highly-recommended (by yours truly anyway) books that I’ve read in the past year or so, listed in no particular order. Who knows, maybe one of them will catch your eye. And even if they don’t… keep “casting out to the depths” with your reading! If you do so, you can’t fail to bring up pearls of wisdom to stimulate your mind and fortify your soul…



Grendel, John Gardner
This is an utterly unique and enthralling book, especially if you happen to have read Beowulf. Gardner, with powerful imagination and beautiful, crisp prose, engages us in a haunting re-telling of the epic poem, this time from the perspective of the monster. But in doing so, he also gives us a rich meditation on loneliness, spiritual hunger, and the struggle to come to terms with the mystery – and at times, misery – of existence in a fallen world that seems cut off from its Source. Why does Grendel kill and howl in the night? What motivates him to maim and slaughter the very creatures he is so obviously interested in? Is it possible that the monster yearns for communion and for understanding, just as we do? Or is he simply Evil incarnate? Such are the depths plumbed in this most original, rewarding, and surprisingly moving novel.

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
Please see my post entitled ‘An African-American Ulysses: Duke's scattered reflections upon getting halfway through Ellison's Invisible Man’ from October 24, 2005 (in the Archives section -> October 2005).

R. S. Thomas Reads the Poems (CD), R. S. Thomas
Technically this is cheating because it is a CD I’ve listened to (3 actually), not a book I’ve read, but since it’s a recording of Thomas reading many of his own poems, I figure it’s acceptable. This rare recording (a gift from Mutt, I want to note) of Thomas reading work from throughout his long career is one of the treasures of my entire collection. I couldn’t possibly express in a few lines here how powerful an experience is it to hear Thomas’ shaky octogenarian voice read his stunning poems, which are mostly about God, nature, Wales (where he served for fifty years as an Anglican priest), and human yearning. Listening to Thomas’ world-weary croak as he wheezes through these verses makes me feel like Jacob wrestling with the angel: the poems are a struggle with Divine forces and truths far greater than I can ever understand, but they do not leave me without a blessing either. Absolutely unforgettable.

The Aeneid, Virgil
Please see my post entitled ‘Of Arms and the Man’ from September 21, 2005 (in the Archives section -> September 2005).

The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, Breece D’J Pancake
Please see my post entitled ‘A Troubled Guest on the Dark Earth’ from October 4, 2005 (in the Archives section -> October 2005).

Holy Thursday, Francois Mauriac
I think I may have actually read this last year, but I don’t care – it’s such a great book that I couldn’t keep it off of the list (and most likely just forgot to add it to 2004’s). It’s not often that a Nobel Prize winning-novelist also writes a deeply personal, spiritual memoir on the Eucharist (and it would NEVER happen today), but that’s exactly what this book is. Wise, lucid, heart-felt reflections on the meaning and value of the sacrament that the most recent Catechism of the Catholic Church calls “the source and summit of all Christian life.” The writing is nothing short of gorgeous, and Mauriac’s ruminations on this most important of themes are often quite profound. Especially recommended for anyone who would like to develop or awaken within themselves a more fervent desire to draw closer to Christ and to, more specifically, “know Him in the breaking of the bread.”

The Ice Palace, Tarjei Vesaas
Here’s a novel that you truly feel you’re dreaming, rather than reading. The story is simple enough: two Norwegian girls strike up an unusually close, almost mystical, friendship, and then one wanders into a natural labyrinth created by a frozen waterfall, and never returns. The other spends the rest of the novel trying to figure out what happened. But a secret (never quite revealed) is passed between them too before she disappears, and from there, the sheer magic and wonder of Vesaas’ spare but beautifully poetic prose takes over. His description of the frozen waterfall (the titular ‘ice palace’) is among the most stunning, evocative passages I have ever read in my life, even in translation (I can’t imagine what the experience of reading it in the original Norwegian must be like). This book is the proverbial mystery wrapped up in an enigma, but it’s so magnificently rendered, you hardly mind not being able to cross all the t’s at the end. No wonder the publisher who first brought out an English translation called it “the best novel I have ever published.”

Going Native, Stephen Wright
If you took Kerouac’s On the Road, Oliver Stone’s film Natural Born Killers, a few episodes of The Jerry Springer Show, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and several splashes of suburban ennui and threw them all in a blender, the concoction you get might taste a little bit like Wright’s hellish road novel Going Native. But notice I only said “a little bit.” To describe the book in that way sells it far, far short of its deserved worth. In terms of sheer originality and talent, this one ties Vesaas’ The Ice Palace as the best novel of the year for me. But it is a very, very different book… it can only be described as a surreal, violent roller-coaster ride through the unhinged carnival of a society that lost its moorings a long time ago, and seems to be hurtling headlong into an unknown, unforeseen future. That society is ours… and so, Wright seems to imply, is that future. Hallucinatory, unnerving, heart-pounding, terrifying, jaw-dropping, belly-laughter-inducing, chilling… these are only some of the words I can think of to describe Wright’s performance in this novel. I’ve never read another one like it.

Blue Blood, Edward Conlon
Fascinating, impeccably written memoir from Conlon, a fourth-generation Irish-American police officer working the seamy streets of the South Bronx (and still working them as a detective, it should be said). What separates this book from most other cop stories, I would imagine, is above all the quality of the writing: Conlon went to Harvard and knows how to string sentences together. He also draws liberally from a variety of interesting sources: everything from The Godfather to Gangs of New York to the Confessions of Saint Augustine. His detailed, precise descriptions of street cops trying to rid the neighborhood of the scourge of drugs makes for riveting reading, fully immersing you in the dirty, noisy, often violent life of the street. I’ll never forget reading the passages that describe sifting through the rubble that was all that was left of the Twin Towers after 9/11 (somehow Conlon was able to capture in words the soul-sucking sadness and weariness inherent in such a task, and not just rely on the “gross-out” factor). The entire book is a gripping, meticulous, balanced account of life as a New York City cop in the 21st century, and I highly doubt a better (or more accurate) one exists currently.

The Stream and the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes,

Denise Levertov
Very profound collection of poems on, well, religious themes by Levertov, a woman of Jewish origin who converted to Christianity as an adult. Inspired in part by the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, many of these poems attempt to re-imagine familiar biblical scenes from the point of view of a character (or even an object!) within the story, and the experiment yields some rich insights. (Examples: one poem presents to us the last supper from the perspective of a servant girl, another is ‘narrated’ by the fig tree that was cursed by Christ in that strange gospel passage!?!) I found almost all of the poems to be both challenging and edifying to my faith, in addition to being beautifully rendered... an instructive, wise and thought-provoking little book that can be enjoyed by anyone, whether they’re “into” poetry or not.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Journal of a "Novel" - Entry 3

This blog is about "literature and the spiritual life", a Thomas Merton-ian description for the forum appended to the blog by its founder, and my brother, the legendary Duke Altum. My posts have not focused very much on the spiritual life side of the equation. I'm nowhere near as good waxing on this subject as Duke is, but there is certainly a spiritual side to all of my reading and writing pursuits, and that is also the case with this new project. To me, writing has certain spiritual qualities, such as solitude, quietude, acting on impulses of the heart and the will and the subconscious, probing into the deepest recesses of the soul for a glimpse of truth. So I suppose my justification of blogging about my own writing projects is that, in one sense, I am talking about spiritual activity in some obscure way, and if that sounds imprecise and unsure of itself, it is. But it does not mean that, in my case, writing fiction and spirituality are not connected. Just because my command of the language is inadequate to the task of articulating why the writing process deserves to be a topic on this blog does not mean that this position is indefensible. It just means that I might not be the guy to do it.

In any case, perhaps what I mean to flail at here in this entry is that this new project I am seeking to undertake does have a spiritual dimension for me. Even more than one. Today I was doing a little reading in the 'Spiritual Exercises' of St. Ignatius as a kind of mental serum for the rest of the day's poisons, if you will. Yes, I know that you are not supposed to 'read' the Exercises, you are supposed to 'make' them, but I don't know much about them and I just wanted to expose myself to the langauge in this old writing itself. And in one of the exercises St. Ignatius makes a suggestion to use the five senses in the contemplation of the Nativity, the actual moment of Incarnation in the birth of Christ. It proceeded to go through the senses, inviting the person making the exercises to try to 'taste' the air in the stable; to 'see' the glory of God, smell the animals and the hay and everything. Even just reading those guidelines seemed to give me a better impression of the Nativity in my own mind, which is what all writers try to do on some level, make you see things.

I realized that this is the sort of experience I want to create for readers of my proposed novel, except about Depression-era Indiana. I want it to become a sensory experience in the sense that you really hear, feel, taste and smell the small town during that age of history. But the challenge of this is obvious: I wasn't there myself. Therefore I have to rely solely on what other writers have said, eyewitnesses like my Dad, and my own imagination. Reading an interview once with Edward P. Jones, the man who wrote the novel 'The Known World' (see Mutt Ploughman's Best Books of 2005), which was set in the Civil War era in Virginia, I read his response to an interviewers question about how he got the details right from the period since he had admitted to doing very little research. He said something to the effect of, 'If I'm the writer, and I tell you it's Virginia in 1850, to you it's Virginia in 1850 until I give you reason to think otherwise.' In other words, he believed in the power of his imagination to see what it looked like himself and describe it. I am sure he went back and checked on details, but to some large extent it was not research but a lack of restriction on his imaginative powers that made that book work successfully.

As in Ignatius' suggestion to use all the senses to contemplate the miracle of the Incarnation, a fiction writer needs to do the same thing to 'get inside' his terrain and then convey that to other people in writing in a way that makes it possible for them to sense where their story is taking place and what it is like there. The words of the Spiritual Exercises definitely seem to help a person experience the spiritual world in a more intimate way. A novelist's words must do the same thing for the world he is creating. This is the sort of effect I am looking to achieve when I write my book. It will take a lot of work.

But there is another spiritual aspect to this project. Why am I really writing it in the first place? Why do I want to go back in time, experience a world I never lived in that is nothing like any world I know? And why do I long for other people to experience that world? These are much more difficult and complex questions. But I think there is something of a vocational aura hovering around this idea that I have had. Do I dare float the possibility that I was intended to write this story? Indeed, BORN to do it? Is this something I can associate with a life calling, a summons by God to maximimize my talents and abilities and create something in imitation of Him that can last, through which people can know something about my family history and the rigors of raising children in the Depression in this country, and through which I can learn more about who my ancestor was and what he was all about? If I do NOT write this story, am I failing in a much more profound way than just not completing a fictional story? Or was I never intended to do it in the first place, as I might have thought I was?

There is, as you can see, a lot of complexity to this idea, and if it is not clear that I have been thinking about it over the years, it will become that way with more postings. I think it is something that I have almost no choice but to attempt. What will come of it? Do I have what it takes? Am I putting too much stock in a vague concept, trying to 'force' it? Who knows. There's no manual for writing novels; if there was, I would have had one done before my mid-30s. But I can tell you this, I'm gonna pursue it. See if I can find the answers to all of these questions.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Journal of a "Novel" - Entry 2

Although I don't know if anyone besides Duke would have read the post, it was fun to introduce my new writing project via the blog in my first entry. It strikes me that if I am not doing any actual writing of a new story yet, and won't be for a while as I have previously explained, it does feel a little strange to call this my new "writing project" since I'm not writing. At least, not in the technical sense.

Nonetheless, in another sense you might argue that I have already been working on this story for years. It might not be accurate to say that I am starting to write it, but it is accurate to say that it is in the works. And arguably has been for a while.

Writing builds up in one's subconscious for a certain period of time before it is ever put onto the page. That period of time is nearly impossible to quantify. But I know from my own writing experiences that before any story or nonfiction piece is written, there is a period of mental planning that occurs, and that could take anywhere from a few weeks to several years, even decades in some cases.

For example, I recently published an article in the journal Rock & Sling on the singer/songwriter Bill Mallonee (see the Archives from August). That piece took me months to write, but I was thinking about it for at LEAST two years prior to ever sitting down to write it. I had been building up a strong desire to put out there somehow my thoughts on what this singer's music meant to me, but sometimes it takes an event to spur the writing along. In the case of this article it was the release of Bill's album 'Friendly Fire' and seeing him perform again for the first time in a couple years that got me to sit down and knock it out.

Or, in a story I serialized on this blog called 'Start Something', a single line from the film 'Edward Scissorhands' stayed with me for years and in an indirect way led to the final line of my story. I wouldn't call it the impetus behind the piece, but it was something that stayed with me and in the end informed a story I wrote years later. For the record, there is a scene where a woman asks Johnny Depp's Edward to hold her, but since he has scissors for hands, he simply says, 'I can't.' I lifted that line and put it in the end of my story in a different context.

There is an interview I heard once with Elaine Steinbeck, John Steinbeck's third and final wife, in which she said that she always knew that Steinbeck was planning a book mentally, because his attention span for trivial matter was very limited. She said there was always a period when whatever she told him in regular conversation kind of went right through the ears without sticking. This because he was preoccupied mentally with planning a novel.

Though I may not suffer Steinbeck's afflication of distractiveness - and maybe that says something about my level of effort for the new project! - I feel like I am in this phase. And I feel like in a way I have been in it for some time. I really don't know what I want to write in this story, or where I plan to take it, but I do have some vague ideas, and they are whirring around in my head as I think about it more. It's hard to get across on here how rapidly an idea grows and how forcefully it makes its presence felt on the writer's mind. But I can tell you, as I guess this blog shows, that I walk around with it threatening to take over my interior live in its totality at every moment. To me this is a positive sign in terms of my creativity, but one must be careful that it does not distract them too much from other responsibilities. After all, I do have two little kids and a wife at home who deserve my attention. Hopefully I do not skimp on them too much in favor of my own literary fantasies.

And what of my ideas for the story? I can give a few random details, which I set down only to see what remains and what doesn't as the planning unfolds in these very early stages.

I'd like the novel to be set in western Indiana, in the 1930s. It will center around one central character, whose name at least for now is Walter Brogan. He's of Irish descent but a few generations removed. (This is a principal difference from the person I am basing him on, my paternal grandfather, who was partly English, but not Irish, at least not that I know of.) I attempted to create this character for the first time recently in a story I started but had to abandon called 'Drifter'. The idea there was to chronicle the end of Walter Brogan's life, which would take place in the early 1960s. It would be the same guy, but those events would not be included in the scope of my supposed novel.

The novel, I think, would span the time of approximately one year in the height of the Great Depression. I was thinking early 1930s, like '32 or '33, but I have to do more research about when it was at its worst. Without giving too much away, I think the story would have something to do with the struggles Brogan has raising a family at this time and working in the oil industry as a fuel distributor. There is a quasi-legend, or at least one version of events, that says that my grandfather, Floyd Lovell, who did distribute oil in the 30s, was fired from his job for extending credit to his customers who could not pay for the oil without persmission to do so.

This story has me by the throat. To me, this is one of the central aspects of my grandfather's character, if it is true. And if it is not, it still will be the central aspect of Brogan's character, because this little detail fascinates me. Floyd Lovell was, by my father's accounts, a difficult, tempermental man at times, and a tough father to live up to if one was bookish and not very gruff. But this anecdotal evidence that he might have shown compassion to other men/families, who were after all no better off than he was, says a great deal to me. It means he had a soul and a heart and knew what was what, in the end, I believe. It means he cared for other human beings, and this knowledge means a lot to me because I never knew the man.

I'll leave it there for now, but this is the terrain I want to explore. I am going to do a lot of research on both the time and the oil industry during that period, for obvious reasons. It should be fun and informative. I also plan to do a lot of talking with my Dad, as much as I can, to support this project. I've talked to him a thousand times about this, but not in this context. I am really looking forward to those upcoming conversations. I'll report about those two, and other aspects of the idea, in upcoming posts.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #19 -- CHRISTMAS EDITION!

A happy, holy Christmas season to all TST readers/participants! For this week's poem, I wanted to invite both celebration and contemplation of the mystery and wonder of the bright miracle of the Incarnation... to that end, I selected one of the remarkable Christmas poems of Thomas Merton. The great monk, mystic, social activist, poet, gadfly and literary critic wrote some very tender and devoted poetry (mostly dedicated to the Blessed Virgin) in the 1940's, and this poem comes from that period. In describing the annual Candlemas ritual practiced in his own monastery, Merton reveals fresh insights and deep spiritual truths about this special season to our jaded minds... "for those who have ears, let them hear." I love the description of he and his fellow monks (and all of us?) as "New Simeons, to kindle/Each at Your infant sacrifice his own life's candle."

May each of our "own life's candle(s)" be re-kindled in the days to come... and stay kindled "Until our sacrifice is done,/(By which not we, but You are known)".

Lux venit! Gloria in excelsis Deo!


The Candlemas Procession

Ad revelationem gentium.

Look kindly, Jesus, where we come,
New Simeons, to kindle,
Each at Your infant sacrifice his own life's candle.

And when Your flame turns into many tongues,
See how the One is multiplied, among us, hundreds!
And goes among the humble, and consoles our sinful kindred.

It is for this we come,
And, kneeling, each receive one flame:
Ad revelationem gentium.

Our lives, like candles, spell this simple symbol:
Weep like our bodily life, sweet work of bees,
Sweeten the world, with your slow sacrifice.
And this shall be our praise:
That by our glad expense, our Father's will
Burned and consumed us for a parable.

Nor burn we now with brown and smoky flames, but bright
Until our sacrifice is done,
(By which not we, but You are known)
And then, returning to our Father, one by one,
Give back our lives like wise and waxen lights.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Introducing Mutt's 'Journal of a "Novel"' - Entry 1

One of my favorite books about writing books is John Steinbeck's post-humously published 'Journal of a Novel', which catalogued the writing of his epic 'East of Eden' (1952). As any Steinbeck crony knows, this book was a collection of letters that Steinbeck wrote to his editor, Pascal Covici, on an almost daily basis during the writing of the novel. He likened these letters to a pitcher warming up his arm before taking the field. After writing the notes, which discussed his progress in the story and also touched on the broader issues/concerns of his life at that time and the world at large, he would dive into his daily 'work' on EofE, averaging about 1500 words a day.

I have decided that am going to attempt to use this blog as my 'Covici', and write about my next fiction project, if I can do it without laughing or causing too much laughter. I want to catalogue my own progress towards my planned "novel" about Depression-era Indiana and fictionalizing my grandfather in some way in a story. But i have to put "novel" in quotes. I've never written a novel, and have no reason to think I can get one published if I did. Yet, I DO think I am capable of writing one, as I've said before. And I may as well try. It's what I'd really like to do in life, therefore I have to make an honest attempt, and I just can't see why now isn't a good time to take it on. I figure by cataloguing my own progress here, as Steinbeck did in an earlier form of communication, I can motivate myself to keep going by making my thoughts quasi-"public". And as any writer knows, anything that motivates one to keep going through the blocked, uninspired periods is worth its weight in gold. (Let's hope I keep ridiculous cliches like that out of the novel.)

When I speak about taking this on "now", let me be clear, I mean starting now, but make no mistake, if I ever finish this project, it will certainly not take weeks or months. It will take years. In essence, what I am doing by writing this post is committing myself to a LONG term writing project. It can be abandoned, of course, if it does not work out (gazillions of previous novel attempts have been ditched by me - one went at least 300 pages). But there's no question that this is the beginning of what must be a serious commitment. Why would I take on such a commitment? Is it even realistic when I just had my second child, I work full time, and write one hour a day if I am lucky??

My only answer is that I don't really feel like I have much choice. I really want to write a novel. I am really drawn to the material of the life of my grandfather, an oil distributor who was raising a family of six children in the 1930s and 40s and who died oyung at 58 in 1961, nine years before I was born. And i just instinctively feel - or if you will, my heart tells me - and this is the most important thing i have to say here - that THERE IS A STORY IN THAT MATERIAL, AND I AM THE PERSON TO WRITE IT. It may be, as I told my brother Duke the other day, that this is part of what I am called to do while I am living on earth. It may sound grandiose, but if it is, than why have I been trying to write fiction consistently for the last FIFTEEN YEARS, since I was 20 years old, in response to impulses I have to do so?

So, let it begin. It will be a long ride. I can't wait to get started on my reading 'research', as I noted in a previous post here. I have no idea what the story is, what it will be all about, but those subjects will be explored as i research and later on as I begin to write the book.

Which brings up my final point. 'Journal of a Novel' is not a really long book. Steinbeck was not planning the novel when he wrote those letters. He was already in the writing phase. I may be six months to a year from ever laying down a word of a first draft on my story. My journal will also catalogue the research period. But I want a place to air out my thoughts and to begin planning the book. So if i realize this dream, in the end this journal will catalogue both the planning and the writing of what may - one never knows - turn out to be the artistic achievement of my life to date. If i can see it through.

I want there to be no doubt from the beginning on this: I TRULY BELIEVE I CAN DO IT. So stay tuned if you want to see if I can.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Read Farther

Very often when you admire a well-known, recognized literary classic (say, Moby Dick or The Grapes of Wrath), it pays to dig a little deeper into the author’s catalog to see what other lesser known gems can be uncovered and enjoyed. I have found this to be the case with many of my favorite writers who have written highly respected and popular classics – when I’ve searched out some of their other works, I have been richly rewarded through the experience of reading them as well. Sometimes it pays to “read farther.”

I’m thinking about this, I suppose, because I am in the midst of a little run in which I am purposely going back and reading some of the lesser-known works of writers who became famous on the strength of one, or perhaps two, notable books. For example, take Stephen Crane and Sherwood Anderson: two highly-respected, canonized American writers whose most famous works are staples in our country’s high school English courses – The Red Badge of Courage and Winesburg, Ohio respectively. Both of these are undeniably great books, and well deserve their designation as “classics” – but I for one think it’s a shame that such great writers and thinkers, such noble searchers after truth and the soul of America, should only be known for these singular efforts. Especially when both of them contributed other fascinating works to our collective body of literature that seem to be rarely read, or worse, altogether ignored in our day. In my experience, this is usually the case with writers who are known for one great work – there are almost always other works in their oeuvre that are well worth attending to, but that tend to get overshadowed by the great success of the more recognizable one. William Golding gave us Lord of the Flies, for example, but he also gave us the powerful moral fable The Spire. Daniel Defoe is famous for, of course, Robinson Crusoe, but his A Journal of the Plague Year makes for fascinating reading as well. Sinclair Lewis, America's first Nobel laureate, is lauded for Main Street and Babbitt, but many contend that his most ambitious and important novel is his satire on race in America, Kingsblood Royal. [There are exceptions to this, of course: Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece Invisible Man, for example, is the only major work of fiction he produced, and Wilfred Owen was killed in action in World War I, leaving us with only the one astonishing collection of poems (of which ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ is by far the most famous).]

Another thing: I have noticed that the most creative, successful writers are usually those that are willing to stretch themselves and try out different genres, styles, and formats through which they can express themselves and refine their art. Scan through the list of Nobel laureates in the last 100 years and you’ll notice that most of these writers didn’t just focus on one genre or style, but were constantly trying new things, branching out, extending themselves in new directions. Look at Steinbeck: most people know him for the aforementioned Grapes or Of Mice and Men, but few realize that he also wrote plays, several books of non-fiction, journalism, travelogues and several different varieties of experimental or satirical fiction. And many of these lesser known Steinbeck works are tremendously interesting and wonderful in their own right. It’s fascinating to me that the famous chronicler of the working-class American families and laborers during the Great Depression years would also write a satirical novella about a Norwegian village that resists Nazi occupation during World War II, or a re-telling of the King Arthur/Knights of the Round Table myth set in southern California.

Two shining examples of this kind of literary daring and versatility are a pair of the greatest writers America has yet to produce, Mark Twain and Herman Melville. Both are obviously well known for very famous works of fiction – Twain for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; Melville for Moby Dick and ‘Billy Budd, Sailor.’ But a look deeper into the work of both men reveals an astonishing buffet of riches, there for the tasting for anyone who bothers to come to the table! Twain has given us two books detailing his travels across Europe, an incredible variety of moral fables and short fiction, a serious study of Joan of Arc, rich non-fiction portraits of life on and along ‘The Big Muddy’ (the Mississippi River), and an amazingly wise and poignant meditation on our human condition in his one-of-a-kind Diaries of Adam and Eve. Melville, on the other hand, has blessed us with ground-breaking experimental short fiction (‘Bartleby the Scrivener,’ ‘Benito Cereno,’ ‘The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids’), epic poetry, novels satirizing American culture (The Confidence Man), adventures yarns on the high seas, and a wide variety of other novels and stories.

But back to Crane and Anderson for a minute. Chances are the majority of us were essentially forced to read either Winesburg, Ohio or The Red Badge of Courage in a high school English course (or, in my case, both). I, because I only blossomed into a fully flowering book nerd after college, went back as an adult and read them both again, getting a great deal out of each the second time around. Winesburg in particular really knocked me out – reading it as an adult, I realized how ahead of its time it really was (it’s amazing to think it was first published back in 1919), and how obvious an influence it was on so many major writers that came after Anderson, most famously Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. The latter in particular: you can really see, when you read Anderson (assuming some familiarity with Faulkner, which is all I have, some), how some of the interior monologues and inner ruminations of Faulkner’s characters would never have been written without Anderson’s pioneering work in trying to get at the emotional core of Midwestern common folk trapped in small towns, desperate for a richer experience of life than their environment could offer.

But there’s more of this “pioneering work” in Anderson’s largely forgotten follow-up to Winesburg, a story collection called The Triumph of the Egg. Although he deals with similar themes, these stories at times push the boundaries even further, experimenting with different forms and lengths and points of view. They range from a brief, enigmatic 2-pager exploring, of all things, the mysteries of bearing children (‘Motherhood’), to a dark, novella-length tale of a small-town girl returning to her hometown (after moving to the big city of Chicago) for a weekend and reflecting upon her stifling life and experience there (‘Out of Nowhere into Nothing’). Given Anderson’s obvious gift and preference to write about his characters’ inner lives and deepest yearnings (mostly left unfulfilled), it is surprising and quite impressive to me how well he is able to take on the voice of young female characters, which is something he does often in this collection. In many ways this collection seems the next step taken from where Winesburg left off, creatively speaking… and yet, if we get off the train in Winesburg, we miss these other fascinating little whistle-stops out there dotting the Great Plains of the American Midwest… as well as an intriguing window into Anderson’s development as a writer.

And when you think of The Red Badge… Crane wrote this searing novel of the Civil War when he was only 21 years old! Anyone who had read it will agree that that in itself is an astonishing achievement. But what did he go on to write after that? Where did his travels in the world, and on the page, take him? He didn’t get all that far, seeing as he died before he reached the age of thirty… however, he DID manage to create many other memorable works of short fiction, as well as some well-regarded poetry. I recently read some of that short fiction in a small collection called The Open Boat and Other Stories, and some of the work was really profound and interesting. The title story in particular, 'The Open Boat,' surprised me by revealing itself (at least in my reading of it) as a clear precursor to the existential fiction of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. But this was in the late 19th century, several decades before either of these writers came on the scene! Crane vividly describes the experience of being tossed about on a wild sea in an open life boat (something that actually happened to him, which obviously adds to the impact and accuracy of his account), and with healthy doses of philosophical musings mixed into the narrative and a handful of diverse characters, it’s easy to read the story as an allegory for man’s existence in a cold, unfeeling universe of Chance. I’m not sure if that was exactly Crane’s intention, but to me there’s a straight line from this story to stuff like The Stranger and No Exit.

This is not even to mention the next book on my list, Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo, which is described on a prominent web site dedicated to Hugo’s life and work this way:

Dedicated to the island where he spent 15 years of exile, Toilers of the Sea was an addition to Hugo's great illustration of Man's Destiny. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame had depicted Religion, Les Miserables Society - Toilers of the Sea was intended to illustrate Nature. The stage for Mans battle with the elements was the sea, and one of its most horrible creatures lurking in its depths. Hugo's original title for the novel had been The Abyss, which perhaps would have been more appropriate.

Besides being a drama about the ocean surrounding it, Toilers of the Sea was also a display of Hugo's intimate knowledge of life on the Channel Island of Guernsey. The life of the natives, local folklore, the Island people's mixture of English and French and the magnificent scenery gave the novel peculiar and fresh qualities.

Now I don’t know about you, but that to me sounds like a fascinating novel indeed… yet who has ever heard of it, or heard it discussed? Or had it assigned to them in a course? And the corollary question to that, in my mind at least, is, Why haven’t we? But the answer to that question notwithstanding, my point is that it’s in print, you can still find it out there… and that is usually true of many lesser known works by talented and thoughtful writers. It is well worth the time to get out there and pan for these obscure works, because very often there are golden nuggets of wisdom still buried and waiting to be discovered (by the intrepid reader who’s willing to take risks), underneath the silt and sediment of all the cultural run-off that has accumulated since their authors first brought them into being.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #18

Feast of Saint John of the Cross (Juan de la Cruz)

Here is one that is appropriate not only chronologically, but also spiritually (at least in my reading of it), for this time of year. Adam Zagajewski is a poet of Polish descent who lives and teaches in America (Houston, to be exact). His writes profound, honest, spiritually astute and deeply emotional poetry. He seems to be carrying on the tradition and work of the great modern Polish poets that came before him, Zbigniew Herbert and Csezlaw Milosz.

I know that Zagajewski, like most Polish boys, grew up steeped in the traditions and rituals of the Catholic Church. I don't have any idea where he is now in relation to that Church, although it is clear from his poetry that a Catholic sensibility and a sacramental view of nature and reality have endured in his soul. I fully understand that this poem could be read as an exhortation to hope for Spring. But to me, the final lines of this poem can only point to the miracle of the Incarnation, as the needle of a compass can only point to True North. December may seem a "herald of destruction" with its brittle cold and white silences, but this cannot change the fact that the One we're waiting for is, in fact, being born, and the One we are all seeking will come to save us, and all the world, on Christmas morn.

A blessed Advent and Merry Christmas to all readers of The Secret Thread!



December, herald of destruction,
takes you on a long stroll
through the black torsos of trees
and leaves scorched in autumn’s fire,

as if to say: so much then for
your secrets and your treasures,
the fervent trill of small birds,
the promises of summer months.

Your dreams have been dissected,
the blackbird’s song now has a rationale,
plants’ corpses clutter the herbarium.
Only the laboratory’s hard stone remains.

Don’t listen: they may take everything away,
but they can’t have your ignorance,
they can’t take your mysteries, strip you
of your third homeland.

Don’t listen: the holidays draw near
and frozen January, snow’s white paper.
What you’ve waited for is being born.
The one you’re seeking will begin to sing.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Mutt Ploughman's Best Books of 2005

The Known World, Edward P. Jones

About the book: An historical novel about black Americans who owned slaves in the pre-Civil War era in the South. First novel from Jones; published in 2003; winner of several awards including the Pulitzer Prize.

About the author: Previously published one story collection called Lost in the City; was unemployed after being laid off from his job when he wrote The Known World; has stated in interviews that he had planned to read many books about the Civil War period as research for the book, only to abandon the reading and make most of the details up.

Why it made the list: This is a fascinating, moving exploration of a little-noted aspect of the history of slavery, that of black people owning black people. Numerous memorable characters; impressive plotting that skips episodically back and forth in time. This book is a testimonial to the power of a determined imagination and a writer’s confidence in the story he has to tell.

Riders in the Chariot, Patrick White

About the book: Epic novel examining the intersecting lives of four charismatic outcasts living in suburban Australia in the 20th century: an eccentric woman, a humble Jewish man, an aborigine painter, and a saintly washer-woman.

About the author: Enigmatic and somewhat reclusive, Patrick White remains the only Australian writer ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1973). Riders may be his best known work; other works include The Tree of Man, Voss, and The Solid Mandala. He is not easy to read but his work is very rewarding.

Why it made the list: Impossible not to include it. This is a complex, sweeping novel filled with fascinating existential- and religious-themed passages, and includes some of the most strikingly original prose in English I have ever read. All four of the main characters are thoroughly unique and believable.

World Light, Halldor Laxness

About the book: Sprawling story about the life of an Icelandic orphan who is convinced his destiny is to become one of his country’s great poets. Originally published in the late 1930s.

About the author: Icelandic novelist Halldor Laxness won the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature. His work was heavily steeped in the ancient literary tradition of Icelandic sagas and are notable for their humor, passion and portrayal of the peasantry as dignified, humble people often struggling against oppressive forces. His most famous novel is Independent People.

Why it made the list: This is a sprawling novel that is swollen with emotion, humor and grace. Laxness’ protagonist, Olafur, struggles all his life to make himself into a poet worth reading and remembering. This book is filled with exquisite passages on the power of literature and would appeal to anyone who has ever tried to do credit to their own creative impulses against all the odds.

The Ice Palace, Tarjei Vesaas

About the book: The odd story of two young girls who become friends in the frozen lake country of remote Norway, and the mysterious tragedy that separates them forever.

About the author: Vesaas is considered one of the greatest Scandinavian writers and was repeatedly considered for the Nobel Prize but never won. His novels and poems explore the lives of people living in desolate regions of Norway and the emotional and physical burdens of such a harsh existence.

Why it made the list: This is a totally unique, atmospheric, almost creepy novel written in very spare, beautiful prose (expertly translated). The unusual relationship between the two girls is never fully explained, but is rendered in simple, heartbreakingly lyric terms, and the wintry landscape with all its grace and beauty is a major force in this spare work. This is a hypnotic and fascinating novel.

Chronicles, Bob Dylan

About the book: Supposedly Volume 1 of three planned volumes of the memoirs of the iconic singer and songwriter, one of the most famous and influential figures in American culture.

About the author: Bob Dylan is a truly classic American voice, an enigmatic poet of our times with an eye for small details and a gift for rendering powerful truths in simple terms. He has one of the few songwriters who has been repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and his numerous albums include some of the most famous songs in the history of modern music.

Why it made the list: This is a spare, surprisingly satisfying memoir told in a unique style and tone of voice that could only belong to Bob Dylan. Most memoirs have limited appeal except to strict enthusiasts of the person writing them; this one manages to make Dylan’s story broadly fascinating and appealing. The prose is elegant and simple, and the unusual structure eschews conventions by skipping whole swatches of time in his career to focus instead on the interesting stories behind certain periods or particular albums. It’s impressive to follow along as Dylan steps into the literary world almost without effort and plays strictly by his own rules.

The Double, José Saramago

About the book: Bleak but powerful novel about an aimless, tired man who spots his ‘double’, a clone, playing a bit part in a rented home video, and the reckless pursuit of his ‘double’, which brings unexpected consequences.

About the author: Winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature, the only Portugese artist to do so, José Saramago is one of my favorite writers, although I do not share his worldview or his atheistic values. Nonetheless he is a brave, powerful novelist who has produced his most extraordinary work after age 60. I also recommend his other extraordinary novels, including The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, Baltasar and Blimunda, All the Names, and The Stone Raft.

Why it made the list: Saramago has taken on the folly of human cloning in this typically bleak, pessimistic story that proves nonetheless to be a thrilling mystery and comical exploration of identity all at once. I admire Saramago’s bluntness with the truth and willingness to express his controversial views on complex ethical problems of our age. He also has a gift for comedy, particularly when it comes to pointing out the ridiculous paradoxes of humankind. Yet Saramago’s books can take unexpectedly chilly turns towards violence and inhumanity. This novel was by turns fascinating, hilarious and frightening, all the way to an expertly executed final chapter.

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

About the book: Published in 1981, this book made Rushdie’s international star explode and drew immediate and earned comparisons to the great ‘magical realist’ novelists Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Günter Grass. It tells the long and convoluted story of two Indian babies, switched at birth, and their parallel destinies, which also coincide with the birth and infancy of the modern Indian nation.

About the author: Salman Rushdie is a British-raised Indian writer who is frequently mentioned as deserving the Nobel Prize, but his complex relationship with Islamic nations, borne of his controversial novel The Satanic Verses, may prevent this from ever happening. A rich, melodious, confident prose stylist, he perhaps more than any other modern literary giant bridges the chasm between Eastern and Western cultures.

Why it made the list: This book has a sprawling, complex plot and very colorful, rich characters, particular the female ones. It was a totally unique reading experience, rich in detail about Indian culture and the volatile political and socioeconomic conditions that brought about its establishment of independence in 1949. Rushdie clearly played by his own rules, allowing his imagination and creativity to flourish and succeeding spectacularly. Reading this book one feels the growing confidence and narrative power of a major voice in world literature.

Water Music, T. Coraghessan Boyle

About the book: This is T.C. Boyle’s first novel, also published in 1981, and like my previous selection, it clearly demonstrates the power of a confident, exuberant writer’s imagination when it is allowed to run wild. Set in the 18th century, this book tells the story of Ned Rise, a child of the London streets, and his fateful collision with Mungo Park, the famous explorer who was the first white man to locate the source of the Niger River in Africa.

About the author: One of the most prolific and talented writers of the modern era, T.C. Boyle has written seventeen books, including seven short story collections. He writes confidently on a wide variety of subjects from a very humanistic / secular perspective.

Why it made the list: Its sheer imaginative brio. T.C. Boyle was a young, brash writer when this book was published and obviously had supreme confidence in his own narrative gifts, and that is what comes through in this wild, very funny and intriguing story. Boyle studied 19th century literature at the University of Iowa, and this novel was his take on the classic Victorian-era novel, but written with his own modern, wise-cracking style. Rich in historical detail and immensely entertaining to read, this was one of the most pleasurable reads I encountered this year. Highly recommended.

The Amalgamation Polka, Stephen Wright

About the book: Technically this shouldn’t even be on this year’s list, since this book is not being published until February 2006, but I got an advanced copy. This book is Wright’s first in twelve years and marks a departure from his previous novels: it is an historical tale about a young man raised by abolitionists during the Civil War-period who discovers his own ancestry has a slave-owning heritage, and sets out to find out more.

About the author: One of the most under-valued American writers of our time, Stephen Wright was my mentor in graduate school and is the author of three previous novels, all of which are extraordinary. He is a powerful, stylistically original writer whose novels hit hard. I highly recommend any of his books to readers of serious American literature.

Why it made the list: Wright has proven he has versatility, mastery of the language, and an acute vision of what it means to be American with this fourth novel, by turns a bold new direction for him and an extension of some of his previous themes. This novel was both horrific and humorous, with a surprisingly empathetic heart for the goodness of humanity against the terrors of war and insanity of racial injustice. This is the first of Wright’s books to end on a note of hope, and I am hopeful that it accomplishes for him what All the Pretty Horses did for Cormac McCarthy in the early 1990s.

The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake

About the book: A brief collection of twelve short stories about the desperate, disadvantaged lives of poor working-class people in rural West Virginia, this was Breece Pancake’s only published book.

About the author: Breece D’J Pancake killed himself at age 26 in 1979, two years before his only collection appeared. With the publication of his stories he was hailed as one of the major new voices in American literature, a writer of brooding, poetic vision and powerful emotional courage.

Why it made the list: Sheer grace, talent and power. This book is raw, gripping, sad and beautiful, the work of an extremely talented young writer who could not overcome his own depression and self-destructive instincts. These stories are filled with yearning to break free from spiritual bondage and create something meaningful out of one’s existence in dark times, stuck in dark corners. It is a collection that will not leave any reader unmoved, and it stands as a painful testimonial of what might have been for Breece Pancake.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #17

His is a name most of us don't immediately associate with poetry, but Herman Melville actually wrote quite a bit of it in his later career, including one long epic about a trip to the Holy Land ('Clarel'). He was a relentless experimenter, and was constantly looking for new outlets for his creative genius and vision (and, unfortunately, new outlets to try and support his family... the fact that a writer as brilliant as Melville could be a commercial and critical failure throughout his writing career is as astonishing as it is discouraging!).

Robert Penn Warren once commented that "the Civil War made Melville a poet." He was referring more or less to Melville's debut poetry collection, Battle-Pieces, which was a cycle of vivid, moving poems inspired by the epic battles and personal tragedies of the war that tore the country apart from 1861-1865. The following is one of my favorites from that collection, and among the most well-known of all of Melville's poems. Its beauty and sadness pretty much speak for themselves, and its relevance to our age (every age?) is perhaps best captured in the powerful lines:

"...dying foemen mingled there -
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve -
Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)"


Shiloh (A Requiem)

Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
The swallows fly low
O'er the field in clouded days,
The forest-field of Shiloh -
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain,
Through the pauses of the night -
That followed the Sunday fight
Around the church of Shiloh, -
The church so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
And natural prayer
Of dying foemen mingled there -
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve -
Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
And all is hushed at Shiloh.

Coming Soon: Mutt's Best Books of 2005

Lists are lists, you kind of take 'em for what they're worth, but it struck me that if this blog isn't the right place to list my favorite reads of the year, then I don't know what would be. This is the ideal venue for such a list, and I don't think I have made a list like this before, at least not an 'official' one.

My brother and Secret Thread creator Duke Altum makes a list every year, and they're always filled with whoppers. If he wasn't planning to already, I am tossing down the gauntlet and practically insisting that Duke post his list also. This is the time of year for Best Of lists!! You will notice when we have both posted our lists that Duke & I do venture down very different paths reading-wise throughout the year: I will leave you to discover the differences. But trust me, though twins share a lot of their tastes, you will see that Duke & Mutt move in different directions in our literary pursuits. This is as it should be!! As we are all singular individuals, our interests and the books we read reflect this........

Keep your eyes on this blog for Mutt's eagerly anticipated Best Books of 2005. Note: this list does not mean the best books that were released in 2005. It means the best books that I read in 2005. Might seem obvious, but just to make it clear.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

What I Am, and Will Be, Reading

The legions of Secret Thread readers might notice that the little 'What We're Reading' indicator on the right seems stuck on David McCullough's 'John Adams' for Mutt Ploughman. Actually, I finished that book, and read 'The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake' as indicated in my Thanksgiving post below. Now, I am reading another longer novel, but I don't want to post on here what it is, because it is directly tied to a gift I am going to be giving Duke for Christmas. When I finish this book, I plan to round out 2005 with 'The Plague' and 'Martin Chuzzlewit'.

For at least the first three months of 2006, I decided I am going to embark on a 'reading experiment' unlike anything I have tried before. I am going to spend the first quarter of the year doing what I guess I am going to call 'research reading' in preparation for a writing project I plan to attempt. I am going to be reading books exclusively about one subject only: The Great Depression that occurred in the United States in the 1930s. I have two books in my possession that I will probably be starting out with: 'Hard Times' by Studs Terkel, an oral history of the Great Depression that was a visionary gift choice by Duke for me a few years back; 'The Great Depression', an out-of-print paperback that is a collection of newspaper columns from around the country that appeared in newspapers cataloguing the Depression (should be fascinating). I have already read Steinbeck's depression-era masterpiece 'The Grapes of Wrath' twice, but I may re-read his earlier novel 'In Dubious Battle' and possibly seek out his articles that were published in a book called 'The Harvest Gypsies' about that time. Another book I'd like to take on in this time period is James Agee's 'Now Let Us Praise Famous Men'.

Why am I doing this? To me, having free reign to choose what books I want to read and mix up the genres, forms and authors continually is important. This 'experiment' upsets that to some degree. Normally I can't stand reading about the same stuff over and over, just as I dislike reading two books in a row by the same writer in most cases. BUT, I am someone who enjoys writing as well as reading, and I have some literary aspirations that have not been realized yet. For at least six years, and perhaps more, I have had a fascination with the Depression and what it gave rise to in this country, and have also entertained increasingly over the years the idea that I might some day attempt to write about that time period myself. Many times I have envisioned attempting to write stories or a novel that fictionalizes the life of my grandfather, Floyd Arlington Lovell, who was an oil distributor raising six children during the Depression in rural, dust-bitten Indiana. Furthermore, the Depression was the defining influence on my own father's early life, as he was born right into it in August of 1930 and grew up relatively poor during the toughest years of economic hardship this country has ever known. These things shaped his character, and have always been totally foreign to me, but equally interesting. I have long imagined possibly writing about this, but have always dismissed it as over-ambitious, too much for me to handle.

Well, I'm 35 and I'm not going to be a star writer. I have two children that are here and growing fast and I have about half a life, maybe a little less in the books. I'm not being morbid: what I'm saying is, there is no time like the present, and if I think I can write, than I should damn well aim high and try to write a story that appeals to me and I think that people would read. So I want to try to see if I can begin to formulate ideas for a Depression-era novel. I've written stories and long fiction manuscripts. I have never written a novel that 'works', let alone attempted to publish one. But this material, this era in history, has its hooks in me, and I am at the very least going to try to learn as much as I can about it and see if the ideas and creative impulses that have stirred in me in the past can be fanned into life.

I think I can write a novel, I think I can learn about the Depression, I think I am able to enter into this material with enough passion and drive to try to make it into something unique. I think all of this enough to make a hard curve in my regular reading regimen and start doing serious reading for a serious artistic endeavor. Stay tuned for later reports in 2006 about the gestation of my ideas and the books that are helping me along.