Monday, February 27, 2006

America: Toys 'R' Us

One thing's for sure about we Americans: we love our toys. From iPods to TiVo to NetFlix to Bose Wave Music Systems (it's passe to call them "radios" now, didn't you know?) to 50" flat panel plasma TVs to camera phones to Viking ranges and beyond, we cannot seem to resist the ever-present lure of technology, the Turkish Delight of the "next new thing." No doubt this is one of the side effects of living in the most affluent, consumer-driven society ever known to man. And no one is immune from these obsessions, trust me... I am not saying in any way that I am. But the fact that we are obsessed with our toys, as a culture, is absolutely indisputable. In America, to a large degree, our toys are us.

Nope, I'm certainly no stranger to that desire for the "next new thing." And obviously these new technologies provide unprecedented conveniences and opportunities for entertainment for us. But, there is a flip side to all of this innovation and consequent consumption. And that's the side no one really likes to talk about. Most people don't want to take the time to ask what long-term affects some of these new toys might be having on us, on our children, on our society at large. We don't wonder, for example, what it means that we can now customize almost all of the news and entertainment content that comes our way, meaning we only need to hear and see that which we want to hear and see. We don't think about the ways in which our obssesive purchasing of expensive, restaurant-quality kitchen appliances doesn't make for more domestic happiness in the home, and why that might be so. We don't pause to consider what effects the constant bombardment of images might be having on our children's ability to analyze what they might read, to think through and deconstruct an argument.

In short, no one out there seems to asking the tough questions about Americans' love affair with their toys.

But there is at least one lone voice out there asking these exact kinds of questions, and she's coming up with fascinating answers, and doling out massive portions of healthy food for thought along the way.

I'm talking about Christine Rosen, who is a senior editor of The New Atlantis journal, and a fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. The New Atlantis, which calls itself a "journal of technology & society," is a relatively new publication (began publishing in 2004), but to my mind it has rapidly become one of the most interesting and provocative journals out there. It looks critically at the development of technologies across all fields and disciplines, and asks the tough moral questions about their applications and possible misapplications. As you might expect (especially in this day and age), much of their content is dedicated to bioethical issues, and a quick perusal of any major newspaper on any given day will provide more than ample reason why this is so. Such issues are being pushed to the fore as new and society-altering technologies emerge at a dizzying pace, challenging even our basic assumptions about life, the universe and especially, ourselves.

But bioethics, as important an area of inquiry as that is, is not the only topic of discussion in the pages of this bold new journal. Rosen has written a series of fascinating and insightful articles about some of our most "revered" (for lack of a better word) technologies, our toys, and the effects they have on the ways we live, the ways we learn and the ways we communicate (or don't) with each other. I've read several of them and I plan on reading many more, simply because she continues to ask great questions about these technologies that I don't hear anyone else asking, and the more I read them, the more I believe they need to be asked.

Here is a list of some of my favorites of these articles, and the subjects they take on:

"The Age of Egocasting" (Fall 2004/Winter 2005) -- Takes a good hard look at iPods, TiVo, and our obsession with "content on demand." Asks the provocative question, If we can customize all content that comes our way, when do we ever engage in ideas that might differ from our own?

"Are We Worthy of Our Kitchens?" (Winter 2006) -- from the journal's web site: "We seek household bliss in our sophisticated appliances, but we devalue home life in the name of career. Christine Rosen takes a hard look at the connection between our domestic technologies and domestic tranquility."

"Our Cell Phones, Ourselves" (Summer 2004) -- examines the ways in which cell phone usage has become a high priority in our common cultural life, and dares to ask whether it's appropriate or not for us to be listening in to the high drama of each other's lives in our public trains, shopping lines, and restroom stalls.

"The Image Culture" (Fall 2005) -- Traces the triumph of the image over the word in contemporary life, and wonders why we as a society lament about illiteracy while we do everything we can in our power to rob our children the chance to read -- and to reason.

These are just some of the truly fantastic articles that Rosen has written over the course of the past 2 years for The New Atlantis, and it seems that she will continue to ask such important questions within the publication. And the greatest part is, all of these articles, as well as every article in the journal, is available for FREE on their web site. I heartily encourage you to take a look, and maybe evern download one or two of them. I would bet my bottom dollar that TST readers would find them to be interesting reads.

If I met Ms. Rosen on the street, I would thank her profusely not just for sharing her wisdom and insights, but also for holding our society to a higher (and an older) standard of what good education and good living means. She has planted so many worthwhile questions in my mind that have a direct and powerful bearing on how I raise my own children, and how I live myself. For that alone, it has been worth the little time I spent (*gasp!*) actually reading them. Technology can be a great gift, but we need to think critically about it, as we do any tool that we might develop -- with all good intentions, perhaps -- to help us live better lives. We ought not just go with the flow, and allow ourselves to be seduced by the newer, better, faster, simply because everyone else is. Toys 'R' Us indeed... but at some point you have to ask: do we own the toys, or do they own us?

Here is a link to Ms. Rosen's latest article, from which you can navigate to the rest of the articles in this outstanding series (right column of the page):

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Journal of a “Novel”-Entry 9

Kickin’ Up Hell

As the research for my Great Depression/Indiana/oil man novel continues, moving into its second month here shortly, I looked back on two relatively dry works about the Depression itself from the point of view of a wide variety of voices. Both of these works were anthologies, with selections from people of all walks of life, be they Congressmen and Senators, journalists, novelists, working class farmers, women, men, immigrants, etc. Some of them told fascinating stories while others simply laid out logical, well-planned arguments as to why the Depression hit in the first place and what was to be done about it.

But being a fiction man at heart, and wanting to write a novel myself after all – the whole purpose to this enterprise – I didn’t want to stray too far away from the terrain of fiction, and I didn’t want to make my research exclusive to what fiction can accomplish. Some would say that it is even a better indicator of what a time was really like to read a good novel from, or about, that time, rather than reading history, and I think I might subscribe to this idea. I just read something recently – and I do not remember who said this, otherwise I would quote the person impressively like my brother Duke always seems to be able to do – where another writer commented something to the effect of, ‘If you want to know something about czarist Russia during the Napoleonic Wars, you should read some history. If you want to know what it felt like to live at that time and in that place, you should read War and Peace.’ And that is basically the heart of the argument. Novels, not history, tell us what people looked like, acted like, and talked like.

Therefore, I knew I had to fit a novel in here somewhere, and it might be just justification for the fact that I prefer them over nonfiction, but if so, so be it. The first place I turned, as you can see on the right, was my old mainstay, John Steinbeck. Of course, The Grapes of Wrath is the ultimate Depression novel for America, and it would be the most logical choice, but I have read it twice, the second time probably about four years ago, and I’d probably prefer to wait longer before reading it again (I probably will though). Also, I got to thinking that although Grapes is Steinbeck’s masterwork, it is probably not as immediate to the Depression itself as its immediate predecessor was, and that novel was 1936’s In Dubious Battle. Grapes was written during the Depression too, of course; in fact, my research tells me that thanks to the recession and kind of resurgence of the Depression that took place between 1937 and 1938, it was written during one of the most difficult stretches, and Steinbeck was by no means financially secure when he wrote it.

But In Dubious Battle was written around 1934-1935, when the first terrible throes of the economic plight was still fresh, and the wounds of the Depression were new and raw. In addition, Battle explores the questions that people had at the time surrounding capitalism and its opposite, socialism, more directly than Grapes does, and it frequently employs terms like ‘communist’ and ‘red’ and ‘radicals’, which seem like bad words in retrospect, but had very different meanings at the time. People had serious, burning questions about the viability of the American system. Many of those questions are given expression in this novel, which centers on striking apple pickers in the valleys of northern California. First I read a lot about the fact that those ideas were circulating around; now, Steinbeck’s novel is putting those ideas into some kind of fictional context for me, which makes it seem all the more real.

But the primary reason I wanted to read a novel from the time is even more basic, even more fundamental than this. I can put it into one word: dialogue. I wanted to find out how people talked. Or I should say how men talked, because Steinbeck, for all of his strengths, didn’t focus a lot on women overall, although you can make the case for Ma Joad in Grapes as one of his most memorable characters. But when it comes to hard working men of the times, no one had their finger on them better than Steinbeck. Consequently, I am picking up all kinds of idiosyncrasies from reading this novel, little snippets and phrases men would say to one another. There certainly is no shortage of the word ‘hell’ in their dialogue: ‘raise hell’, ‘beat hell’ out of someone or something, ‘kickin’ up hell’, ‘sore as hell’, ‘mad as hell’, ‘rustle up enough hell’, etc. One little thing I noticed is that people at the time would say that they would ‘beat hell’ out of someone, whereas I always hear now that people would say they ‘beat THE hell’ out of someone. That’s the kind of little thing that could make a difference.

It seems that men frequently referred to one another using terms we don’t use now, such as ‘fella’, ‘mister’, ‘guy’, ‘boys’, etc. Today a man might say, “That really pisses me off”, whereas in the 30s the same guy might say “That makes a fella sore as hell.” That kind of thing. No one really says ‘sore’ when they mean ‘angry’ now, but they did then. These differences are interesting. Obviously I can’t just supplant Steinbeck dialogue and make it my own, just putting his phrases in different characters’ mouths, but I am hoping to absorb the tone and spirit of the words, to get a sense of how people behaved and thought of one another through language that was written when it was contemporary. In Dubious Battle seems dated (as hell) now, but one has to remember that when it was published it was cutting edge stuff. It contained the flavor of the times.

Finally, reading this novel is also helping me pick up other terms I simply wouldn’t have known about from my own experience. Terms such as ‘crank’ from old-style Model T Ford cars, which refers to a handle you had to turn to get the thing primed to start; or ‘vagged’, which meant getting picked up on vagrancy charges; ‘scabs’, which refers to thugs that were hired to quell uprisings from striking agricultural workers, ‘bindle-stiffs’, which seems to mean ‘guys’ or working-class types. This sort of thing.

Digging for (Facts on) Oil

Also reading selections from Daniel Yergin’s 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction powerhouse about the oil industry called The Prize. I don’t know squat about this industry or about books related to it, but it’s hard to imagine another history as exhaustive as this one being around anywhere. This 900+ page book goes into the complete history of the modern oil business from all corners of the globe. I think it would be fascinating stuff to read the whole thing, but I don’t really have the time for it, so I am going to just read a 70-page chunk which relates to what was happening, internationally, from about 1900 through the beginning of World War II. In the early part of the 20th century, the leading source of oil for the industry was the United States, apparently, but I can’t see this being the case today. It seems that many of the deposits that all the ruckus is about in the Middle East may not have been discovered yet. That is interesting in itself. So far I have read about oil ‘crazes’ taking place in Mexico, Venezuela, and Russia, all between 1900 and 1930.

How much all of this can be related to one working man’s experience as an oil distributor in the Midwestern United States in the 30s and 40s is not very clear to me. But it is interesting to get some general sense of what was going on in the industry as a whole. For all I know Floyd may have kept up on such things. A man like him might have read about the Mexican Revolution in 1911, which upturned the government in that region and which destabilized the whole oil industry, which until then had been focused on oil deposits in Mexico. He might have learned that a major strike was made in Venezuela in 1922 and that most companies flocked into the region for a piece of the action. In fact, Standard Oil of Indiana, which was a competitor of Sinclair Oil (my grandfather’s employer), once was a major player in the 20s because they hit some major deposits in Venezuela, but they eventually sold their part of the Venezuelan business to another Standard Oil spin-off: Standard Oil of New Jersey.

Indiana to New Jersey. It all comes back around…….

Monday, February 20, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #25

The toys may have changed over the years, but the spirit is exactly the same... for the 25th poem of the series, I present a personal tribute to my sons. Robert Louis Stevenson's classic poem reminds me so much of what I am blessed to see every day on the floors and tabletops of our family home... may the raging fires of your imaginations never be extinguished, boys! Daddy loves all three of you more than he can say...


Block City

What are you able to build with your blocks?
Castles and palaces, temples and docks.
Rain may keep raining, and others go roam,
But I can be happy and building at home.

Let the sofa be mountains, the carpet be sea,
There I'll establish a city for me:
A kirk and a mill and a palace beside,
And a harbour as well where my vessels may ride.

Great is the palace with pillar and wall,
A sort of a tower on the top of it all,
And steps coming down in an orderly way
To where my toy vessels lie safe in the bay.

This one is sailing and that one is moored:
Hark to the song of the sailors aboard!
And see, on the steps of my palace, the kings
Coming and going with presents and things!

Now I have done with it, down let it go!
All in a moment the town is laid low.
Block upon block lying scattered and free,
What is there left of my town by the sea?

Yet as I saw it, I see it again,
The kirk and the palace, the ships and the men,
And as long as I live and where'er I may be,
I'll always remember my town by the sea.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 8

New Titles Added to Mutt's Research Docket

I am finishing up my reading of the book 'The Great Depression: Opposing Viewpoints', published in 1994 and edited by William Dudley. This book has been much more of an academic background exercise as it presents what the subtitle suggests, but from figures that were hashing through the problems of the Depression as they arose on a national, policy, intellectual level. That's why there are pieces from the two presidents involved (Herbert Hoover and Roosevelt), members of their cabinet, members of Congress, and journalists, all of whom make various arguments and prescriptions for what will heal the ailments of the nation during those lean and terrible years in America. It is great background for this project, but it is low on "human stories"; it doesn't get into how the people who lived through it, lived through it. But the first anthology I read did get into more of that, and some of the titles I have coming up are sure to touch more on the personal stories of the people that survived. Nonetheless, this reading has been more than worthwhile in that it brought to light to me what proposals our leaders were making, what MIGHT have come to pass if other people were in charge, where things may have gone. There were great arguments being made for and against the redistribution of wealth; for example, many leaders argued for lowering people's work hours from 40 to 30 hours a week so that it would take more workers to do large jobs because men couldn't get done in 30 hours what they might have gotten done in 40 hours. Thus, more people would be hired. Arguments like this were flying back and forth. As many policy makers and Congressional leaders as were behind the New Deal policies were against them. There was certainly no shortage of partisan politics as the Depression wore on.

Perhaps so that I can slide back down off the ivory towers in my reading into the lives of "real" people and their real thoughts, concerns and voices, my next read will be John Steinbeck's 1936 novel 'In Dubious Battle'. Obviously since this is fiction, the people involved are not literally real, but we all know that sometimes it takes novels to illuminate what people's lives were, or are, or will be, "really" like. If that's not the case, let me cut off this entire pretense and drift off into utter obscurity (oh wait, I'm already there!). I already read this novel once, back in 1999, but it seems like a long time ago, and it will be interesting to revisit. For those who do not know, 'In Dubious Battle' was the immediate predessor to 'The Grapes of Wrath', a novel which clearly set the stage for Steinbeck to write his masterpiece. But it's riveting, powerful novel in its own right, and is a good representation of that time in Steinbeck's career when he was clearly coming into his own as a storyteller and to some degree as the voice of his generation of novelists. Sandwiched between his classics 'Of Mice and Men' and 'Grapes', this novel is tense, brisk and full of emotional potency. It also contains a good measure of talk about what most people would now call 'socialism', as many of the migrant apple pickers depicted in the novel openly wonder whether or not the Russian system might not be more fair than the American system of democracy. The novel reflects some of the debating that I've read about to this point about that people were engaged in about whether or not the entire American system of governing itself had run its course. To readers now this seems like jarring, even anit-American stuff. But in its time, this novel only refected what many people were seriously contemplating, and Steinbeck, like most good novelists, is careful in his portrayal of this tragic story to keep 'himself' out of it. He's not advocating communism; he's reflecting the voices and spirit of the people of his time and place. 'In Dubious Battle' is up next.

After that I will most likely break into a superb discovery I made recently, one that I hope will really blow the doors off of my creativity for this SPECIFIC fiction project. I bought this book used for a total of $5, including shipping (you know right there that this should be one of the gems, for it does not violate my $5 book expenditure rule). I learned about it in an interesting way, by sending an email to the Indiana Historical Society (which I found online) and asking them for recommendations. Playing it up, I just said I was a 'writer' (true technically, I guess) researching a 'book' on Indiana during the Great Depression, and that I needed some Indiana-specific recommendations. They came back with only a few, but this one may be most of what I need. The book was actually published by the Society, so they oughta know, and it is called 'Indiana Through Tradition and Change: 1920-1945'. Sounds boring as hell I am sure, but when I went online to see if it was available used, I found it on for $3.00, and thanks to their online feature that lets you see some books' tables of contents, I realized I had found something close to the mother lode! Turns out that this book is Volume III of a five-volume history of the State of Indiana, but it covers exactly the time period that I need. Walter Brogan, as I see it, would have been born sometime around the start of the 20th century (Floyd, as previously noted, came around in 1903). I see Walter, for the purposes of my novel, as being a millennial child, so let's just say he was born in 1900. In that case, the period of 1920-1945 not only lines up very well with my own grandfather's middle life, from young man to middle age, and so reading this would be interesting on that level alone, but it also obviously lines up with Walter Brogan's. This book focuses only on the State of Indiana and what was going on in it during that time, and believe me, it covers EVERYTHING: politics & government (state and municipality levels), industry, agriculture, culture, relgion, sports, the arts, and everything in between. There is even one chapter that talks about the petroleum industry, the oil deposits in Indiana (there were some), etc. It's an absolute home run for my purposes and I cannot wait to get into it. It will be dry, but it is what I need. I am hoping, as I said at the outset, that it really drives some ideas and gives me foundational facts about the setting for my story. Thanks to the Indiana Historical Society! Look for a mention in the acknowledgments!

A Title and a Basic Storyline Begins to Emerge....

But you won't get much of it here. I won't reveal my tentative title just yet (Duke Altum knows, grease him if you really want it!), but I like the T.C. Boyle idea that having a rough title before you helps you gain some drive and focus. Sounds good anyway. I haven't even starting writing yet and don't plan to for a few months. But I am starting to get a concept going of what I want this story to be about. Let's just say it is going to be mostly about Walter Brogan, but also about his son, Father Luke Brogan, S.J. In a way, it is a kind of 'alternate history' of what MIGHT have happened if my own Dad had become a priest. Well, on second thought, it is not really that, because I don't know what would have happened. But this is a concept that is founded somewhat in the fact that my father studied for years to become a priest, and may have been one if things had gone differently. But, you ask, what does Father Luke Brogan have to do with anything? I thought you were writing about this guy struggling through the Depression? I am, but some of the themes that are emerging have a way of running down through more than one lifetime. I will leave it at that for now. You will have to buy the novel when it hits bookstores everywhere in, say, 2009.

On that optimistic note.....

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Wright's 'Amalgamation Polka'

Stephen Wright's new novel The Amalgamation Polka was published yesterday by Alfred A. Knopf, which for me made it a great day for American fiction. As I have blogged before on this novel (see my review in the November archives), I found it to be a fascinating take on the Civil War period piece, an interesting hodge-podge of different stories, an eclectic mix of humor, violence, social commentary and lyricism. For over a year now since I first heard from a friend that Wright had finally delivered a new manuscript for publication (both she and I had studied under Wright at The New School in New York), I have been very, very excited about it and have hoped fervently that this book would bring Wright widespread acclaim and, more importantly, new readers.

That is why I was very disappointed to see that the novel was immediately pummeled in a review by the icily cantankerous critic from the New York Times' Book Review, Michiko Kakutani, who has been lambasting books for the Times for years and who seems very difficult to please. Reading her review, which concluded by asserting that Wright had penned a 'mannered and maladroit book', which I am sure would not sit well for a writer who clearly marches to the beat of his own literary drum and whom one look at the photo in the review will tell you would not be described as 'mannered', I am forced to consider a few things about the book world, critics, and indeed, my own response to the novel.

I write that I must re-think my own initial response to the novel because I do not think that Kakutani's review was without its fair points, and I certainly don't think it was poorly argued or particularly nasty. She cites as the major flaw of the novel that it frequently does not seem sure of the kind of story it wants to be. It moves from comic to horrific to episodic. Sometimes it has a Twain-ish feel and sometimes it has a more linear, cinematic feel that less resembles 19th century writing and more resembles modern war stories. I found this quality to be intriguing and one of the things that made the novel seem different from most other books I had read about the period, but I can see how people would read this and think it was jumpy and had tonal shifts. In my reading, the whole novel had a curious feel that made it difficult to nail down, but I didn't necessarily see this as a bad thing. But then again, I didn't really read the whole book as a comic take on the war or the American society of the time, and other reviews I have seen did. Inevitably, you begin to wonder if your own reactions were just off the mark because 'real' reviewers didn't see it the way you did. But I think to some extent one must have some faith in their own gut responses to books. It felt how it felt to you when you read it.

Kakutani writes that these shifts and different tones 'collide' with one another in the novel and make it, more or less, a big undeveloped mess. She accuses Wright of not being sure of 'exactly what story he wants to tell'. Knowing something about Steve Wright, I really doubt that this was the case. Whether he wrote a story that gives that impression is one thing, but it is hard for me to believe that he just wrote along, not knowing what he wanted to do. Wright wrote this book over twelve years. When I worked with him in 2000, he told me he had 150 pages of what became this novel 'done', and that was six years ago. This is a man who must have worked and re-worked every aspect of this novel 'til his fingers bled, and I am convinced that he knew what he was trying to accomplish with this book, which to me seems to be to tell a Civil War story in a style reminiscent of a 'dead' form of American literature (that of the 19th century masters like Melville, Twain, Poe, etc.) in order to illuminate the ridiculousness of war and racism. I think that to imtimate that Wright is groping around for some idea of what he wants to do in this book is not only a disservice to what he accomplished in this novel, but it is also ignoring his previous accomplishments which demonstrate beyond a doubt that he knows what he is doing when he writes a book.

Kakutani writes that Stephen Wright has a 'heat-seeking eye for the weirdness of contemporary life', and she is certainly correct with this well-phrased statement. One might argue that because his three previous novels were so accurate in their portrayal and skewering of our modern times (the last century), his foray into historical ground seems strange and ill-suited to his gifts. You can make a valid case for this, and it obviously feels that way to Kakutani. She has the right to express that opinion. I only wish that her reviews, and perhaps book reviews in general, sometimes paid more attention to the technical points of writing a novel. By that I mean language, sentence structure, prose, vocabulary, etc. I supposed that most people who read book reviews are not very interested in opinions about this aspect of contemporary novels, and I guess I can understand that. I do think, however, that in Wright's case, more should be made out of his prose and his language because it exceeds the great majority of any contemporary fiction that is out there today and it deserves special mention. You can take ANY of Wright's four novels and find extraordinary sentences, poetic flourishes and stunning paragraphs at random throughout each. There are some paragraphs I've read by him that I wanted to read again and again. And given how much time it took him to produce each new book, unless he is just a really lazy guy and of independent means who can just take his time when he writes, this indicates to me that Wright has imposed extremely high standards on his own craftsmanship, and in the end he has always risen to exceed these standards, in my opinion. I know this is a subjective thing, but most critics have always recognized how well he writes sentences, and Kakutani pays little attention to this except to mention his 'gifts' in the outset of the review and his 'electric prose', whatever that means. She should state that this a guy who writes at a very high level and should give him more credit for doing so. It's very, very difficult to write even a few pages of prose that sparkles and cracks like Wright's does.

Other writers, or I should say other novelists, have a greater appreciation than some critics do for what he has accomplished. Russell Banks wrote of his second novel, "M31: A Family Romance" that 'his sentences buzz like high tension wires'. Toni Morrison called "Going Native" 'an astonishing novel. Even Thomas Pynchon, the recluse, wrote of this new novel that Wright 'writes in the tradition of heartbreaking humor which America's lapses of faith in its own promise has always evoked in the finest of our storytellers, among whom Stephen Wright here honorably takes his place'. I know that in the book world some of this is just back-scratching, but when was the last time you saw a blurb from Thomas Pynchon on anything? And Morrison and Russell Banks are hardly lightweights.

It is interesting to consider the power that a reviewer like Michiko Kakutani holds. If she reviews a book well it almost always shows up as a blurb on a book; if she pans something, it's like it missed the mark somehow. She frequently lambastes books written by white men. Makes me wonder how much pandering has to be done to her by publishers or even authors, but I wouldn't want to know. I think they could use some new blood at the Times, but that's neither here nor there.

Finally, some personal thoughts about Wright and this book. There's no doubt that I want this book to do well because I studied with him and know that he's had a long and hard road. So I have some emotional involvement I guess you could say, and that certainly effects my disappointment at this negative review. But obviously she felt that it didn't deserve high marks, and there's nothing I can do about that. Steve Wright was the whole reason I WENT to the New School; I read one of his novels when I was in my decision process for graduate school, and I knew that he was a great writer and I wanted to try to study under him. Not that this made me a great writer myself, it didn't, but I relished the experience, and I am still trying. His books have had a profound effect on my thoughts about the American novel and writing in general, and I think they have been a great influence. I hope that Stephen Wright will gain some exposure and success with this new novel, despite the negative review from the biggest paper in America. But if he doesn't, he will still be a great writer as far as I am concerned, and I hope this is not the last we have heard from him.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #24

Last week got away from me, sorry faithful readers! I kept meaning and meaning to get a POTW up here and it never happened. To make up for it this week, I'm offering something slightly unusual -- not a poem per se, but a fragment of a poem. A poem that is one of the greatest works of literature ever penned, one of my favorite works of fiction of any genre -- the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri.

Recently I took the final (and least famous, for some strange reason) volume of the Comedy, Paradiso, off of my shelf, and was thumbing through it, trying to recall the experience of reading it. I came across a short passage that I had marked off, and as I re-read it, I realized that it makes for a perfect example of why I think this work is so worth reading: it is chock full of interesting interludes and passages in which Dante (through the mouths of his characters, who are very often historical figures) muses about human nature and man's relationship to either himself, the world, or God Himself. Very often, they make for valuable spiritual reading, in that they remind us of truths greater than ourselves, and orient us within the great schema of Providence.

In this passage, Dante is being instructed by Saint Thomas Aquinas within the Fourth Sphere of Heaven, who has just finished explaining "why none ever rose to equal Solomon's wisdom." At the conclusion of this instruction, he issues a warning against hasty judgment (it's probably worth noting that in this discussion he has just mentioned some of the Church's most infamous heretics). It makes for powerful and even timely reading, "for those with ears to hear."


Paradiso, Canto XIII, lines 117-123; 130-143
(John Ciardi translation)

For he is a fool, and low among his kind,
who answers yea or nay without reflection,
nor does it matter on which road he runs blind.

Opinions too soon formed often deflect
man's thinking from the truth into gross error,
in which his pride then binds his intellect.

It is worse than vain for men to leave the shore
and fish for truth unless they know the art:
for they return worse off than they were before.

Men should not be too smug in their own reason;
only a foolish man will walk his field
and count his ears too early in the season.

for I have seen a briar through winter's snows
rattle its tough and menacing bare stems,
and then, in season, open its pale rose;

and I have seen a ship cross all the main,
true to its course and swift, and then go down
just as it entered its home port again.

Let Tom and Jane* not think, because they see
one man is picking pockets and another
is offering all his goods to charity,

that they can judge their neighbors with God's eyes:
for the pious man may fall, and the thief may rise.

*from the translator's notes: "Tom and Jane" -- anyone in general. (Dante says: "donna Berta or ser Martino.")

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Uncommon Powers (being a brief tribute to an unjustly neglected, great American writer)

Full disclosure: I have only read one out of five of his published books (2 novels, 3 short story collections).

But, it was enough to know what I, and 99% of all other Americans in my generation presumably, have been missing.

J. F. Powers is a name you never see on high school English curricula anymore, that is, if you ever did. He has been given that most cursed of all literary designations, that of "a writer's writer": which is another way of saying that his work is good enough to be admired by the likes of Saul Bellow and Flannery O'Connor, and will henceforth be damned to almost total obscurity. Well, I'm obviously no Bellow or O'Connor, but I'd still like to add my name to the list of those who perceive Powers as a writer of extraordinary gifts, and this after having read only his debut story collection, Prince of Darkness, which was published in 1943. This slim volume, with its 11 stories weighing in at barely over 150 pages, contains some absolutely remarkable writing, and better still, the kind of shrewd and valuable human insight that elevates the experience of reading to something approaching a spiritual exercise.

Powers is probably best known for his 1963 National Book Award-winning novel, Morte D'Urban, and for being a writer who liked to write about Catholic priests. To leave it there, however, would be to not even begin to understand the magnitude and worth of Powers' contribution to American -- nay, human -- letters. Those who knew and admired his work the most seem to unanimously claim that his best stuff is actually his short fiction, and some of the stories in Prince of Darkness made me indeed wonder if he could ever have written anything better (even with my being fully aware that this was Powers' debut). And within the world of his short fiction, it has been well testified that his best work can be found in his stories about priests.

Why this is so is anybody's guess, but here's mine: Powers, a writer who also happened to be a devout Catholic, was at the very peak of his form when he was exploring the conflict and interplay of the spiritual and the physical, the sacred and the profane, and (most importantly) the messy, soul-threateningly difficult balancing act of living out one's God-given vocation in a consumer-driven, materialistic, and utterly secular society. I think he could most vividly portray this 'balancing act' by presenting us with the daily struggles and sacrifices inherent to the lives of priests and religious, which he usually milked for plenty of comic, and occasionally tragic, insights. Yet in doing so, in showing us these by turns hilarious and painful (sometimes both, as in the end of the story 'The Valiant Woman') moments in the lives of people who have given their entire existences to serve God and others, Powers also shares some profound truths of what it means to live a spiritual life, and more significantly, what it costs. (More than one commentator has opined that it is probably no accident that the last word of his last novel, Wheat That Springeth Green, is "cross.")

But rather than having me go on and on in this post about what a great writer Powers is and why he should be read, I thought I would share two brief passages that amply demonstrate his comic genius and his deep spiritual insight -- both of which make his fiction exceptionally good for the heart and soul. One demonstrates Powers' genius as a satirist, the other his keen perception of spiritual truth.

To set up the first, from the title story "Prince of Darkness": Father Burner is a parish priest, a career "associate pastor" whose greatest ambition in life is to finally have handed to him the reins of the parish he knows he deserves and has worked so hard all his life to get. He is hoping that today, when he meets with his bishop, he will be re-assigned to a new parish where he will be named Pastor. As the story begins, it is morning and he is having his breakfast, when he is rudely interrupted by a man who turns out to be an insurance salesman...

"I should've known you'd be eating breakfast, Father. But I was at your Mass and I said to myself that must be Father Burner. Then I stayed a few minutes after Mass to make my thanksgiving."

"Fine," Father Burner said. "Breakfast?"

"Had it, Father, thanking you all the same. It's the regret of my life that I can't be a daily communicant. Doctor forbids it. 'Fast every day and see how long you last,' he tells me. But I do make it to Mass."

"Fine. You say you live in Father Desmond's parish?"

"Yes, Father. And sometimes I think Father Desmond does too much. All the societies to look after. Plus the Scouts and the Legion. Of course Father Kells being so olderly and all..."

"We're all busy these days."

"It's the poor parish priest's day that's never done, I always say, Father, not meaning to slight the ladies, God love 'em."

Father Burner's sausage fingers, spelling his impatience over and over, worked up sweat in the folds of the napkin which he kept in view to provoke an early departure. "About this matter you say Father Desmond thought I might be interested in----"

"The Plan, Father." Mr. Tracy lifted his seersucker trousers by the creases, crossed his shiny two-tone shoes, and rolled warmly forward. "Father..."

Father Burner met his look briefly. He was wary of the fatherers. A backslider he could handle, it was the old story, but a red-hot believer, especially a talkative one, could be a devilish nuisance. This kind might be driven away only by prayer and fasting, and he was not adept at either.

"I guess security's one thing we're all after."

Father Burner grunted. Mr. Tracy was far too familiar to suit him. He liked his parishioners to be retiring, dumb or frightened. There were too many references made to the priest's hard lot. Not so many poor souls as all that passed away in the wee hours, nor was there so much bad weather to brave. Mr. Tracy's heart bled for priests. That in itself is a suspicious thing in a layman. It all led up to the Plan.

"Here's the Plan, Father..."

The second passage is not a funny one, and it is in some respects an anamoly in Powers' work. Usually he did not confront the realities of spiritual life directly, but liked to explore them indirectly in the harsher light of the trivial, mundane details of every day life. But in the story "Lions, Harts, Leaping Does," he reveals to us the thoughts of a dying Franciscan priest (Didymus) as he reflects back on what he perceives are the failures and inadequacies of a life spent doing ministry for strangers, while neglecting important family ties. He is very near death, and I find it fascinating to read what Powers has him think at this moment when he is hanging by a thread over the abyss of the Infinite...

He was surprised to find he wanted nothing in the world for himself at last. This may have been the first time he found his will amenable to the Divine. He had never been less himself and more the saint. Yet now, so close to sublimity, or perhaps only tempted to believe so (the Devil is most wily at the deathbed), he was beset by the grossest distractions. They were to be expected, he knew, as indelible in the order of things: the bingo game going on under the Cross for the seamless garment of the Son of Man: everywhere the sign of the contradiction, and always. When would he cease to be surprised by it?...

...Then he saw the full moon had let down a ladder of light through the window. He could see the snow, strangely blue, falling outside. So sensitive was his mind and eye (because his body, now faint, no longer blurred his vision?), he could count the snowflakes, all of them separately, before they drifted, winding, below the sill.

With the same wonderful clarity, he saw what he had made of his life. He saw himself tied down, caged, stunted in his apostolate, seeking the crumbs, the little pleasure, neglecting the source, always knowing death changes nothing, only immortalizes... and still ever lukewarm. In trivial attachments, in love of things, was death, no matter the appearance of life. In the highest attachment only, no matter the appearance of death, was life. He had always known this truth, but now he was feeling it. Unable to move his hand, only his lips, and hardly breathing, was it too late to act?

"Open the window Titus," he whispered.

And suddenly he could pray. Hail Mary... Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death... finally the time to say, pray for me now -- the hour of my death, amen. Lest he deceive himself at the very end that this was the answer to a lifetime of praying for a happy death, happy because painless, he tried to turn his thoughts from himself, to join them to God, thinking how at last he did -- didn't he now? -- prefer God above all else. But ashamedly not sure he did, perhaps only fearing hell, with an uneasy sense of justice he put himself foremost among the wise in their own generation, the perennials seeking after God when doctor, lawyer, and bank fails...

I hope these two passages will reveal something of the depth, insight and sheer talent of J. F. Powers' writing. I will certainly be reading more of his work, because as these excerpts prove, he is an artist plumbing after truth about God and man, and the fallen world in which they try, often in vain but occasionally with success, to find each other, to connect.

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 7

More on the Man Upon Whom the Character Who Doesn't Even Exist Yet is Based

Read that five times over and tell me if it makes any I research the Depression and Indiana history, I have been thinking about the man I want to base my character of "Walter Brogan" on, who was my grandfather, Floyd Arlington Lovell. As I've indicated before, he died well before I was born. He was born on June 9, 1903 and died on December 14, 1961 at the age of 58. My own father, God be thanked, has long outlasted his, for he is now 75 and relatively healthy and completely lucid, I'll tell you that.

By all accounts I have heard, Floyd was a complicated man. Maybe he was simple in others. He seemed to be hard working, honorable, of traditional values, and somewhat disciplined. It doesn't sound like the guy rested a day in his life. One might easily make the case that my grandfather worked himself to death, if you wanted to put it harshly. He pushed himself unhealthily in terms of working long hours and suffered the consequences in terms of poor general health due to a lack of exercise and even in injuries. There is a vague episode I have heard of in which he was hit by a falling metal drum of fuel; he suffered internal injuries that never seemed to get properly corrected. He didn't visit the doctor unless he had to. He acquired diabetes as an adult due to poor dietary habits, which contributed to his heart disease and may have affected his vision. When he died of a coronary failure, it was massive and final. On that cold December night while he worked at the gas station he ran at the end of his life, he may have died before he even hit the ground. Such a tragic ending to a difficult life.

If these notes don't speak too well about him, some other facts and anecdotes do. He seemed to be a very social man who enjoyed the company of others, probably male company the best. He loved sports, beer, camaraderie; he was a 'man's man' in some ways. He got along with people. Also, his life course was in some ways set out before him by things he couldn't control. For example, I know for a fact HIS father, whose name was Valoris Lovell, died when Floyd was a young man, maybe around 20. Floyd had dreams of attending Notre Dame to play sports. (His grandson, my brother Luke, later fulfilled this dream by attending the university, and his celebrated intramural sports career is still discussed over suds at Carroll Hall.) But he never got even close to doing so, for after his own father died, I know that he had to assume some of the responsibility for his family's well being, although to what extent that responsibility reached is unclear. It was a real long time ago (1918? 1919?).

As you can gather from these notes, Floyd was a lot of different things at once. Like all of us. My primary purpose for writing about a character based on him - if there needs to be a purpose for any fiction writing other than the writing itself - is to enter into a possible 'version' of him so that I might understand him a little better. This is the best I can do, given the fact that he passed away so many years before I was even born.

True Stories from the Era that Will Help me Produce Interesting Fiction, or At Least That is the General Concept

I am coming across a lot of interesting stories and anecdotes from my research about things that people did during this time. It will make for an interesting palette from which to draw ideas and possible scenarios and characters. They range from funny to tragic to inspirational. There is the story of the man who, with ten children of his own, went to a bridge in his town over the Mahoning River, watched for a while as other people walked to their jobs, then removed his coat and pitched himself into the river. There is the elderly woman who, upon the failure of the bank in her town, went to the insitution, which held all of her life's savings, and banged on the glass doors until the authorities arrested her and put her into an insane asylum. There is the old man who described a memory where his family was so hungry, their father brought home a bag of flour once and they tore it open and ate it straight up by the handful. There is another story about a woman who fed her children by putting flour in a frying pan with some water and serving that, whatever that is. There is the statistic that one Chicago survey in the early 1930s found the school teachers in the region were feeding 11,000 hungry children on their own resources. There is the story of a woman who, when picked up with her family hitch-hiking, was clutching a dead chicken in her coat, and commented, 'Hoover promised a chicken in every pot. Well, i got mine.'

There is nothing to indicate that my grandfather or my dad's family ever experienced the levels of poverty described in those stories, but this is the background against which the events will be set, this is what American was dealing with at this time. How would one retain their basic optimism? How would one shield their children from despair and a sense of insecurity? How would one plan for the same chidrens' futures? How would one keep their own job? How would one vote, think, worship, amuse themselves?

This is the thinking I am doing right now. And these are the sort of things I hope to answer for myself in writing a long story about this period.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 6

Mutt's Research Begins

Back on with my journal to mark the beginning of my official "research period" for this "novel" I am looking to "write" so I can someday "publish" it and be a real "writer" for once in my life! "Dream on," the world chimes in........I will, and gladly.

As you can see on the right, I've begun my Depression-era reading with an out of print book called, simply enough, "The Great Depression", edited by David A. Shannon, who may or may not even be around anymore since the book was published in 1960. Using this book as the place to start my research seems nearly Providential in a few ways: 1) I stumbled on it while out visiting a library used book sale last year, when Duke still lived in the area I live in, and he was there too. We took two of our children - I had my older daughter, and John had his oldest son, my godson. I found this book shoved in a box for $0.25, beat up but salvageable, and I snagged it only because I vaguely thought I wanted to write about the Depression some day (as I've noted previously, it's been nagging me for years), and it seemed like a good resource. It is. More on that below. Also, 2) it turns out the book was published by Prentice Hall, which is where Duke was employed for years until they ground him down and he got a new job in Maryland which caused him to move. But at the time he worked for the company that had published this book.

Perhaps it didn't stay in print, but for me the book is a major find and the perfect place to begin my research on the Depression. This is because it is a collection of items from a variety of interesting sources, which gives a lot of different perspectives on the times; also, it aspires, as it says on the back of the book, to tell the story of the Depression 'in human terms', which is in a way exactly what I want to do with the story I plan to write. Although I am not done with the book yet, it has proven to be thoroughly informative and interesting. The pieces are from the actual time - they are not retrospective - and they are written in tone, flavor and language of that era. They range from newspaper columns - mostly from the New York Times, but also from Chicago and other mid-Western newspapers - to essays in major magazines (Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, The Saturday Evening Post), to transcripts of Congressional hearings, to case studies of individual families. The sections of the book focus on urban level unemployment, farmers, students and education, small towns in Middle America, and there is even a section solely about the possibility of Social Revolution. One of the things I did not infer from what I know and have never understood was how much speculation was going on at the time in this country about the possibility of their being a Soviet-style revolution during this time in the United States. That seems ludicrous to someone from my generation, but one can see why at the time it did not seem silly at all to many people. People were totally destitute in America; in the Soviet Union, the Communist era was in its youth, and the proletariat was gainfully employed. Did you know that at one time in the early 1930s more than 100,000 Americans applied for jobs in the Soviet Union??

Books Begin This Way.....

Pretty much only trying to convince myself by that heading, but what the heck......I am very glad I started out on my research with this obscure book because I have noticed that with other novelists I admire, some of their best books began the same way. For example, T.C. Boyle has commented that a friend gave him a book called 'The Nuts Among the Berries', about food fads in the early 20th century. This led to one of his best known and best received novels, 'The Road to Welville', which was also turned into the Alan Parker film. Ron Hansen, whose 'Mariette in Ecstasy' is easily one of the best novels in English in the last 25 years, at least, was partially inspired to write that book by Thomas Merton's 'The Waters of Siloe', which described daily life in the Trappist monasteries of the past. Similarly, it's my hope that I can use 'The Great Depression' as a catalyst for some of my novel ideas. There are a lot of interesting stories in the book that can be turned into fiction, if I had the chops to perform this kind of alchemy......

I have lots more to say, but for now let me leave it there. Leave my other thoughts for future posts. 3/4 of the way through one book of reading for research, but the juices are flowing.......the only thing I don't have that Hansen and Boyle have are books under my belt to give me the confidence that I can actually write this novel, but if I don't have the confidence there, I will need to come up with it on my own.