Friday, November 30, 2007

Mutt Ploughman’s Best Books of 2007

A listing of my favorite books read this year with brief comment, listed in order of merit.

10. The Unknown Terrorist, Richard Flanagan. Brilliantly-executed, morbid thriller about a stripper mistaken for a terrorist makes a very powerful statement about where our leaders are taking us.

9. Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, Meg Meeker, M.D. I feel forever indebted to Dr. Meg Meeker for this wonderful advice manual for raising girls – the most useful nonfiction book I have ever read.

8. Hopscotch, Julio Cortazar. Any novel in which the publisher’s description includes the phrase ‘intellectual acrobatics’ will resist any synopsis that I can provide, but this absurdist classic is a memorable, challenging, and mind-expanding experience.

7. The Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Andric. This is the ultimate novel of Bosnia/Herzegovina/Yugoslavia, centered on the symbolic largesse of a centuries-old stone bridge over the Drina River.

6. White Teeth, Zadie Smith. First novel from wunderkind Zadie Smith, a prodigious talent, this is a remarkable Dickensian novel built around two very different London families and written with wit, intelligence, and huge ambition.

5. Freddy’s Book, John Gardner. Fascinating novel by the wonderful, sorely missed novelist Gardner contains a book-within-a-book set in Medieval Sweden and telling the unsettling tale of a battle between a knight and the Devil.

4. Forty Stories, Anton Chekhov. The undisputed master of the modern short story offers the reader compassionate, intelligent tales about common folk with emotional resonance and unmistakeable artistic genuis.

3. Like You’d Understand, Anyway, Jim Shepard. Simply the best contemporary short story collection I’ve read in years; if you read one story collection this coming year, this should be it.

2. What is the Point of Being a Christian?, Timothy Radcliffe, O.P. This book stunned me – a wonderful, lucid, but highly readable attempt to answer this question, from a priest with compassion, intelligence, and a breadth of experience from travels he made around the world.

1. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert. A near-perfect work of literature, hands down the best book I read this year, satisfies on all fronts.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #59: Three by Simic

Welcome to the Theater of the Absurd on this gray Sunday after Thanksgiving!

Here are three very short poems from the man currently serving as Poet Laureate of the United States, Charles Simic. His recently published collection with what just might be my favorite title of the year, The Voice at 3:00 A.M., is on my current reading shelf and I am finding it to be wonderfully complex and inspiring.

As I hope these three will show, he is very gifted at creating strange but vivid images using just a few well-chosen words. I don't pretend to understand any of these, but something about the atmopshere and mood they bring to one's mind, considering how brief they are, is impressive to me. They remind of scenes from a Fellini film -- you don't pretend to know exactly what they mean, but they feel like dreams you can somehow relate to anyway. And like Fellini, Simic is celebrated as an artist of the surreal -- whatever that means!

I really appreciate the end of that last one, if only because it makes me laugh heartily and yet, for some reason which I don't fully grasp, feels like it carries some wisdom with it as well. Maybe one day I will understand its impact on me... but then, maybe not!?!


Evening Chess

The Black Queen raised high
In my father's angry hand.


It snows
and still the derelicts
carrying sandwich boards --

one proclaiming
the end of the world
the other
the rates of a local barbershop.

Folk Song

Sausage-makers of History,
the bloody kind,
You all hail from a village
Where the dog barking at the moon
Is the only poet.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Living Faithfully a Hidden Life: Thoughts on George Eliot's 'Middlemarch'

I have just finished the second of a projected three weighty, challenging classics of Western literature that I'd decided I would try to read this year, after repeated procrastinations and delays: George Eliot's Victorian-era epic of English provincial life and manners, Middlemarch. (The first one, reported on earlier on this blog, was Thomas Mann's philosophical novel The Magic Mountain, and the third, if I ever get to it, will be Fyodor Dostoevsky's monumental spiritual classic The Brothers Karamazov.) This was also the first installment of my aforementioned "British Literary Invasion," in which I attempt to fill in the embarrassing gaps in my literary education when it comes to British literature. Soon I will be moving on to the next installment in that series with one of Thomas Hardy's best-known novels, The Return of the Native.

But enough about other novels -- I'd like to share a few thoughts about the massive one I have just completed. This was my first encounter with George Eliot's work, although of course I have been hearing about her famous novels for as long as I can remember: acknowledged classics such as The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner, as well as lesser known works like Daniel Deronda and Adam Bede. Several years ago I learned about the spiritual and moral import of her work through reading Dr. Robert Coles, the Pulitzer Prize-winning sociologist and literary critic who famously taught the works of the Western literary tradition to doctors and lawyers at the graduate level at Harvard. The focus of his courses for these graduate students was always on how literature teaches us critically important moral and spiritual lessons of life, and several times in his writing he refers to Middlemarch as a work that has much to say about (to swipe the title of a book I just finished) "the art of living." I made a note to myself that this was a classic I needed to get back to at some point. That 'point' happened to be the last few months -- yes, it took me that long to get through it, but with a family of five and a full-time job to juggle, you don't exactly have huge chunks of time to sit back and read at your leisure! If you're going to take on a book as long and complex as Middlemarch, you have to be resigned to the fact that you're going to be living with these characters, and this writer, in your head for a long time...

All that said, I am happy to report that although Middlemarch takes real effort to get through, it is well worth the time spent. One might well wonder what a Victorian-era novel about the life of the citizens of a provincial English country village -- in which no major events happen, no crimes or battles or strange incidents or accidents or riots -- could possibly have to say to adults living in 21st-century America during the age of instant information, postmodern confusion and the pervasiveness of pop culture. My answer, perhaps not surprisingly to anyone who has visited this blog before, is simply this: everything. One of the great glories of literature is firmly rooted in the fact that human nature, in its essence, does not change. When the external wrappings of time and place are stripped away, the core is revealed to be something we all hold in common. And though the physical, logistical and social constraints and conditions of Victorian-era life in rural England may be quite different than those we live with, the deep and profound questions these characters are contending with were ones I found to be quite familiar. See if you agree with me. Questions such as:
  • What is the best way to live respectfully with others in community, while at the same time remaining independent with one's own ideas and not being afraid to express them?
  • What are one's obligations to those neighbors outside the boundaries of one's own family circle? What happens when one's perceived responsibilities to those less fortunate than you start to impinge on one's responsibilities at home?
  • What does it mean to "work out (one's) salvation with fear and trembling" within the context of a marriage relationship?
  • To what extent should one's own hopes and dreams be sacrificed or put on hold so that a spouse can pursue theirs?
  • To what extent should financial concerns and stewardship guide one's everyday decisions?

Middlemarch is a book that deals with the realities of married life vs. the societal conventions and expectations husbands and wives have imposed on them, the struggle to maintain a healthy moral and spiritual relationship to the material goods and resources we need in order to live, and the challenges and blessings of living in community. Beyond (and including) all of this, however, I think it is a book about vocation. Eliot chooses to begin the book with a fascinating prologue, comparing her heroine, Dorothea Brooke, to Saint Teresa of Avila (!):

Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity . . . . With dim lights and tangled circumstance they tried to shape their thought and deed in noble agreement; but after all, to common eyes their struggles seemed mere inconsistency and formlessness . . . . Their ardor alternated between a vague ideal and the common yearning of womanhood; so that the one was disapproved as extravagance, and the other condemned as a lapse . . . . Here and there is born a Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing, whose loving heartbeats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centering in some long recognizable deed.

Which sounds bleak, I realize (though interesting)... but my point is that Eliot is concerned with taking this seemingly ordinary life and opening it up for us, like a flower, to show us that inside is a heart that's much more complex and ambitious than it would appear on the surface. This is, in point of fact, no ordinary life at all. As we observe Dorothea's courtship and marriage, and then the terrific emotional and spiritual struggles she and her husband go through to maintain a happy and healthy life together, we come to realize that this is the crucible within which Dorothea's soul must be tested in order to realize who she really is. We are all tested in our lives with daily battles that roil and rage under the surface of seemingly "normal" and conventional situations. The people you pass by, work with, and talk to on the phone could very easily be going through excruciating, or exhilarating, seasons in their lives that will have a profound impact on who they are and what they have been put on this earth to do. But what we do, and specifically what we do with, to and for others, can have an impact that goes well beyond what our limited minds can account for.

Eliot expresses this profound reality eloquently in the final, and strangely hopeful, sentence of this great and serious book:

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

If the Novel is Olympus, Dickens is Zeus

Introducing Mutt Ploughman’s first ever Annual Non-Scholarly Charles Dickens Essay to Correspond with Dickensfest VI

It’s a nice thing to be able to commemorate here my annual Dickensfest reading event, in which I spend about 3-4 weeks making absolutely certain that I read at least one work by Charles Dickens every year. This year I am bringing to life a new feature of this annual event, a web-only, non-scholarly, appreciative essay on the work of this master of English literature. Because this is the first year that I have presented an essay in any ‘official’ way on the blog (in past years I have usually posted some thoughts about whatever I was reading for that year’s Dickensfest), my primary goal is to review the short history of this self-applied annual literary regimen and provide some brief comments on the works of Dickens that I have had the pleasure of reading thus far.

Although I am working to repair the damage, my relationship with the work of Charles Dickens is not what it could have been. I am the immature student of this master novelist who was dumb enough to blow off several critical early blocks of instruction (i.e., reading assignments in my high school years) only to have to play catch-up later on (the present) when the ‘exams’ hit me (trying to write my own stories and novels). If I had been a more forward-thinking teenager, with any insight whatsoever into what I really wanted to do in this life, I might be on the second round with Charles Dickens’ works by now. Instead, I literally ignored any assignment I had in high school which had anything to do with Charles Dickens’ writing. If memory serves, I was certainly assigned to read both Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities in my freshman year of high school. This would be around 1983-4. I remember only trying to stay awake as my terrible high school English teacher, Miss Zelkin, waved her witch-like fingernails and talked in a monotone about Miss Havisham in her wedding dress and the wimpy (to my mind) Pip running around dirt-infested London of the 19th century. The only thing I retained about A Tale of Two Cities was the phrase “it was the best of times; it was the worst of times” and a vague image of French people licking the cobblestones where wine had spilled. I am sure too that I must have been assigned to read “A Christmas Carol” in high school but I know I never did, opting to watch the movie like most other students. Probably the one with the Muppets. (Which holds up over time, incidentally, with the great Michael Caine as Scrooge!)

Based on these forgettable experiences, and my own shortage of interest, I was positive that once I left those courses I was done with Charles Dickens forever, and I couldn’t have been happier. And that same attitude, more or less, remained in force, I am embarrassed to admit, until somewhere around the turn of the last century. That’s right, when I was almost thirty years old. I had discovered in college, finally, that I was interested in writing fiction, and henceforth in literature in general, but this was sometime around 1990, and it still required another 9 to 10 years of maturation (only word I can think to describe it) to understand that Dickens was canonical reading for anyone interested in writing fiction well. For some reason before then I was unable to muster up an interest in 19th century literature or in England, and I perceived Dickens’ novels as huge, boring monoliths that no one could possibly enjoy.

Finally, in the Spring of 1999, I had the first of three watershed experiences that would help me to see the light and start reading Dickens. By this time I was attending The New School in New York City as an MFA candidate in Creative Writing, because I wanted to write my own stories and novels, and had made many ill-fated attempts to get my ‘career’ started in both forms. At The New School’s MFA program we were required to attend literature seminars, one per semester, that were led by working writers. I took one such seminar under the novelist and journalist David Gates, who writes columns on books and music for Newsweek magazine, and has written two novels and a story collection that at that time was just about to come out. Both of his novels were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a dour, acerbic, Baby Boomer with an extremely dry sense of humor, but he knew what he was doing, and I admire his writing in both magazines and in fiction even today. All I want to say about him was that he talked repeatedly, I mean ad nauseam, about Dickens and Jane Austen, frequently referring to their works or stories about their lives. The sheer breadth of his understanding of those writers’ works and the importance they seemed to have to him began to work on me, and I began to reconsider reading them. I wouldn’t have touched either of those novelists with a ten foot pole before I took Gates’ course, and I feel like I owe him for that.

The second watershed event was my own brother (Duke) making the prescient and intelligent choice to buy me an awesome Modern Library edition of A Tale of Two Cities in celebration of our 30th birthday on November 7, 2000 (the same day George W. Bush was not yet elected President). This, obviously, was a choice that would pay off. You must give credit where it is due, and in this case it is Duke’s. It became the first Dickens novel I ever read, but technically it was not the first installment of Dickensfest, because I hadn’t come up with that concept yet.

After this, exactly seven years ago in fact, I traveled with a friend to London, England, for an off-season 4-day weekend stay. I took A Tale of Two Cities with me, for by now I was convinced I had to explore Dickens, but I didn’t feel too excited about it. I started reading it on the plane, and I was astonished at how much I was enjoying it. On that same day, we arrived in London early in the morning, and came to the third, and by far the most influential, of the three watershed experiences. The guy I went with was a fan of the theater, the really old-school kind, and he wanted to go on a tour. I thought that would be great for sight-seeing reasons, so I agreed to go on a “Charles Dickens Walking Tour” of London. I thought it had to have at least some intrinsic literary value (my own dim intelligence starting to glow feebly).

Here’s how it worked: we found a brochure which told us a location near the river Thames and a time to be there. It was around mid-afternoon; I’ll never forget it. We wandered down to the riverside to a chilly location by a newsstand and waited with a group of other tourists. From where we stood we could see the London Eye and this other hideous stadium monstrosity that they had built for the millennium celebrations, the name of which escapes my memory. We were early, so we just milled around in the cold breeze. Precisely at the required time, a tiny, frail-looking older woman in 19th century peasantry dress showed up out of nowhere, gathered the small group around, and launched into a very vivid, spirited acting performance in which she was a character from that era and was going to guide us to numerous important locations in the life and in the work of the great Charles Dickens. I knew from the way she pronounced his name that the tour was going to be unforgettable. She said it like she was the voice of England herself, and her pride was clear. She was a tremendous actress; her voice inflection and enthusiasm were colorful and uninhibited, and she seemed like one of those great English stage actors that you see in BBC productions and “Masterpiece Theatre”. She took off – her pace belied her ragged appearance – and we all rushed to keep up.

That small woman and the places she guided us to changed my mind about Charles Dickens forever. She took us all over the place, to the financial district, St. Paul’s Cathedral, numerous pubs, school halls, and, to my surprise and pleasure, many back-alleys, fogotten streets and stone passageways. She brought the world of Charles Dickens vividly to life. I remember visiting a stone alleyway Dickens used to pick pockets in as a boy; a huge legal ediface called a ‘chancery’ in which Dickens set many scenes from Bleak House; a bank that played heavily into A Tale of Two Cities, which pleased me since I had just read about the place; a blacking factory like the one Dickens worked in as a child; the actual site of The Olde Curiousity Shoppe, which is still in existence; the location of the fictional murder of Nancy in Oliver Twist; and many drinking establishments where various Dickens scenes had been set. It’s hard to describe how interesting I found the entire tour and how the entire Dickens universe exploded to life in my brain, once I actually set my eyes on those places. As we continued the tour, the evening fell, and I remember ducking under archways in the glow of ornate iron streetlamps, hearing church bells, and hauling open large oaken doors to pubs where inside fires glowed in the hearth and male voices roared in laughter and song. I knew on that tour that I had to dig in to Dickens for real, and this time I had to go all the way. I had to read his books – every one of them – and see why he was the undisputed master of the novel. Just to wander on streets that Charles Dickens himself walked late at night while unable to sleep, plotting out his complicated stories in his brain, was a galvanizing experience for me. I remember those places every single time I open a Dickens novel. I know what they look like; I know what they sound like.

From that whole week sprung the idea of Dickensfest, although it really didn’t take root until two years later, 2002. I had already read Cities, and at some point that year I decided that I was going to read one novel or book by Charles Dickens a year for the rest of my life. This is the essence of Dickensfest. I thought, Why not? I will want to read most of the novels again, and there are a ton to begin with, and if you toss in the shorter works, ghost stories, Christmas tales, and all of his journalism, you can read a book a year forever and never exhaust the well. And I don’t know another author whose work is more worthy of devoting this kind of time and effort. Many people consider Dickens the greatest novelist who ever wrote in English, and I tend to agree. His novels are large, brave, and thrilling; poignant and hilarious; sinister, brooding, and compassionate. He was an undisputed genius of plot and character development, and he had the courage to take on large, important social issues in the context of that most arduous of artistic pursuits: the writing of novels.

Since I began with my annual Dickensfest, I have read some of the most unforgettable novels of any era, including Our Mutual Friend (2002), Bleak House (2003), Dombey and Son (2004), Martin Chuzzlewit (2005), and Nicholas Nickleby (2006). This year’s selection is probably the most famous of them all, Great Expectations. From each book I have taken many favorite moments, but here I will list what I consider to be unforgettable from each story:

-the scene in Our Mutual Friend where the schoolteacher Bradley Headstone captures his mortal enemy Rogue Riderhood in chains and plunges them both into the Thames River to drown in a murder/suicide
-the brilliant, symbolic opening descriptions of a thick fog crawling over a sleeping London in Bleak House
-the gut-wrenching death of Paul Dombey’s six-year-old son in Dombey and Son
-the heart-pounding suspense of what might be the ultimate Dickens murder scene, a bludgeoning in the woods perpetrated by the evil Jonas Chuzzlewit in Martin Chuzzlewit
-the incredible thrashing the title character doles out to the abusive schoolteacher (with the awesome name) Wackford Squeers in Nicholas Nickelby

I’m hopeful that these moments will give anyone who might read this an incentive to enter this world if you haven’t already, and if you are a fan of literature and novels. It is a joy every year to come back to Dickens and discover a new novel of his that I haven’t yet read, thanks to my lack of foresight when I was a younger reader! I am looking forward to the fruitful years ahead where I will rediscover again and again Charles Dickens’ works, and deepen my appreciation of his artistic genius and his big-hearted compassion. Dickens always championed the average Joe and the virtues of humanity in the face of the false authority of power-hungry institutions and the reality of Evil in the world. He never forgot what we all have in common with one another, and he may have put this sentiment best by inserting those internationally famous words in the small mouth of Tiny Tim: “And may God bless us; every one.”

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #58

It probably doesn't need to be said here that the American writer Raymond Carver is known for his short stories primarily, rather than for his poems... but nonetheless he did write quite a few of the latter, and took the challenge of it very seriously. His poems may not go down in history as technically brilliant (not that I'd be a good judge of that!), but they are certainly interesting and, in their better moments, quite powerful.

This one is very meaningful to me because I think it can apply equally well both to the spiritual as well as the intellectual/artistic life. Anyone interested in pursuing both matters of the heart (i.e. following one's passion to create art) and matters of the spirit (i.e. attempting to approach something like holiness) should be able to relate to his determination to learn from the "book of Nature" without distraction -- and his subsequent failure to keep such distractions at bay: "But, as usual, my thoughts began to wander." Man, I sure found myself nodding in agreement over that line... anyway, I find it an admirably honest and accurate depiction of a common interior struggle.


This Morning

This morning was something. A little snow
lay on the ground. The sun floated in a clear
blue sky. The sea was blue, and blue-green,
as far as the eye could see.
Scarcely a ripple. Calm. I dressed and went
for a walk -- determined not to return
until I took in what Nature had to offer.
I passed close to some old, bent-over trees.
Crossed a field strewn with rocks
where snow had drifted. Kept going
until I reached the bluff.
Where I gazed at the sea, and the sky, and
the gulls wheeling over the white beach
far below. All lovely. All bathed in a pure
cold light. But, as usual, my thoughts
began to wander. I had to will
myself to see what I was seeing
and nothing else. I had to tell myself this is what
mattered, not the other. (And I did see it,
for a minute or two!) For a minute or two
it crowded out the usual musings on
what was right, and what was wrong -- duty,
tender memories, thoughts of death, how I should treat
with my former wife. All the things
I hoped would go away this morning.
The stuff I live with every day. What
I've trampled on in order to stay alive.
But for a minute or two I did forget
myself and everything else. I know I did.
For when I turned back i didn't know
where I was. Until some birds rose up
from the gnarled trees. And flew
in the direction I needed to be going.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 39

One Milestone is Here Now, Another Approaches

This edition of the journal is being written on November 7, 2007, which happens to be my 37th birthday. Thirty-seven on the seventh, in the seventh year of this millennium. Is this a positive omen? We can hope so. I may end up posting this on a later date, but I'm writing it on November 7, so it is on the actual day I was born. For those paying attention, by the way, it's also the day my cohort on this blog, Duke, was born, since we're idential twins. So: happy birthday Duke! Nice to cross the line on another year with you.

Since this is ostensibly a journal that marks progress on my 'novel', tentatively titled Only the Dying, it is good to report here today that as of yesterday, or November 6, I finished writing the draft of Chapter IV, 'A Lawyer's Return, Life After Death'. For those keeping the stats (I like to pretend that I have a whole crew working on this project, when it's really just me that's responsible), I started writing the chapter on July 20 and finished on November 6, so it has been another grueling 14 weeks or so on this chapter alone. Also, as I am now typing the chapter up and watching it grow, it looks as though instead of getting more streamlined, my chapters are only getting longer. Unless I edit more extensively than I have done in the past, this one will be my longest chapter yet. At first this bothered me, since I always envisioned that I would have 12-15 chapters in this novel. After I complete this one, it looks like the draft of the entire novel to this point is already going to be close to 300 pages! It seems way too long to me. But, as I was commenting to Duke recently, I cannot worry about that now. I would much rather have too much to work with than too little, and I have to get the story out of me. I can worry about more cuts when I have a complete draft of Only the Dying in front of me. Furthermore, I know of at least one novel that I have great admiration for, Edward P. Jones' the Known World, that has lengthy chapters, and that didn't seem to weigh his novel down. On the contrary: it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Not making any predictions, of course, but the point is that long chapters didn't mar his book.

So, I would say that in general, far from being concerned, I am very pleased with the progress of the novel so far on the story side of it. I feel immersed in the material, and I feel as though I have a strong sense of that bygone Hoosier world, or more correctly of that world as I imagine it to have been. I am not as pleased about the laconic speed at which I am working, but it is true that I have never worked quickly on much of anything, and certainly not anything literary. It is not simple for me to find the required time to write and rewrite. I am not in a good position to neglect my responsibilities to other things, nor would I ever want to. Indeed, there are more reasons than ever for me now to be a responsible and realistic adult while chasing down my dreams. (See note below.)

Nonetheless, I do want to be a novelist, there's no hiding that fact, and as I turn 37 today, at least I can say I am working steadily towards that difficult goal. I have to date drafted one Prologue and four chapters of a novel. It's the best progress I have made towards this goal in all 37 of those years. I hope to write about 6-9 more chapters, give or take, and an Epilogue of some kind before I am done. A long time ago, I gave myself until I was 40 to have my first novel in the can. I thought that seemed reasonable. As I hit 37, I don't know if I will reach this milestone, but I do know and am proud to say that I have made measurable progress.

One other note. I have recently learned that in addition to my two daughters, age 4 and almost 2, my wife and I will soon be welcoming a third child into the world. My new son or daughter is due to arrive around May 31, 2008. I'd better get as much writing in as I can now! I want to achieve my dreams so that I may demonstrate to my new child as well as my other children that dreams are attainable with hard work. May God bless all my children, for it is for their sake that I intend to better myself in matters of art and of faith.