Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Best Books I Read in 2011 (by Duke Altum)

As is our annual tradition here at TST, here are my choices for the best 10 books I read during the year 2011.

NOTE: I don't usually put these in any order and this year is no exception... however, I feel like each year if I were pressed I could name a single book that was my favorite read, the one in the list that I would bring with me to the proverbial desert island if I could only choose one... so this time around I decided to designate my "Book of the Year." You'll see which one merited that honor below. This is something I may do for future lists; I haven't decided yet. -Ed.

1. (Book of the Year 2011) Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone, Eduardo Galeano - As with most of Galeano's books, this unique and fascinating blend of history and fiction, dreams and harsh realities is not only one of the most interesting and thought-provoking books I've read in many years, it's also an invaluable compendium of questions and speculations about human nature and the entire broad sweep of world history. Every single page - literally - stopped me short in wonder or fascination.

2. Tinkers, Paul Harding - A runner-up for this year's top honors, Harding's profound, poetic debut novel made fascinating connections between clockwork, the workings of the human brain, and the search for personal truth and meaning in the context of generational family dynamics. Somehow he also manages to make his story a moving examination of the complicated relationships between fathers and sons, AND an interesting meditation on vocation. That very rare novel that is both beautifully told, and remarkably insightful on matters of the heart and spirit.

3. Memoirs of World War II, Sir Winston Churchill - An 1100-page long abridgement (!) of Churchill's 6-volume magnum opus, this first-hand account of the build-up to and commencement of the Second World War offers a unique and richly detailed perspective from the eye of the storm. Churchill's personal accounts of such noted and notorious figures as FDR, Hitler and Stalin make this memoir particularly interesting, and his knowledgeable and opinionated assessments of the geopolitical landscape at the time provide perspectives on the conflict you didn't learn in your high school Social Studies class!

4. Earlier Poems, Franz Wright - Don't let the boring-sounding title fool you. These raw, personal, shattering poems of doubt and faith, depression and loneliness, guilt and the search for meaningful redemption by Franz Wright (collected over two decades) prove his uncommon talent and insight into man's instinctive grasp for something Greater than ourselves. These poems clearly came at a heavy cost for wright, but his courage and generosity to share them have, I hope, rewarded him in other ways.

5. Resistance, Rebellion and Death, Albert Camus - As I'm doing this list I realize that this year, for whatever reason, my choices are skewing towards non-fiction. Perhaps most indicative of this personal trend is this choice: I decided to read several of Camus' works this year, including two novels, but the one that made the list was this penetrating and challenging essay collection. I think it's because I admire Camus' unflinching commitment to his own philosophical positions and yet, his willingness to carefully (and critically) consider others. His long and passionately argued essay against the death penalty would alone make this collection well worth reading.

6. Nightmare Alley, Willian Lindsay Graham - This pitch-black, perfectly named psychological thriller is a rich, disturbing and highly original concoction of vintage American "carnie" culture, the occult, religious hucksterism, noir elements, and the art of the con. With its unique structure (each chapter is represented by a different Tarot card) and gothic sensibilities, it reads like an unholy mixture of Flannery O'Connor, Dashiell Hammett and H. P. Lovecraft. A wild and unsettling read, but absolutely unforgettable!

7. King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Adam Hochschild - This impeccably-researched account of the Belgian King Leopold's grab for land, riches and power in Africa (near the heyday of the British empire) chronicles in horrific detail one of the worst campaigns of genocide in human history. A troubling read for sure, but I had no idea at all of the almost incalculable loss of life among the tribes of the Congo rain forests - all due to the greed and conniving of one deluded tyrant. For that new awareness alone, I am glad I read it - but it also contains many vivid portraits of brave souls who campaigned for the basic human rights of these Africans, who would otherwise be completely lost to history.

8. Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Writings on the West, Wallace Stegner - I admit this choice is somewhat influenced by the fact that this year marked my first time on the "real" open frontier of the American West (Wyoming), and I wanted to acknowledge that. I also, around the time of my trip, did some reading about the West from both fictional and non-fictional sources... and this collection of essays from Stegner, who lived and wrote in mountain terrain his whole life, stands out in my mind as some of the best stuff. His ruminations on Western geography, politics, people, and literature were insightful to this Easterner, and highly entertaining to boot (pun intended).

9. Khufu's Wisdom, Naguib Mahfouz - This one just made it under the wire (I finished it very recently), but it belongs on the list because I read nothing like it this year - or in fact, in many years. This was Mahfouz's first novel (he went on to win the Nobel Prize in the 1990's), and in it he richly evokes the sounds, smells, customs and mythology of ancient Egpyt during the time of the building of the Great Pyramids. A fascinating debate between the great Pharoah Khufu and his son over whether or not to engage in a pre-emptive war gives this 1939 novel a surprisingly contemporary feel!?

10. You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto, Jaron Lanier - A generous - and forward-looking! - gift out of nowhere from my cohort Mutt, this wide-ranging, passionately argued plea for individuality and creative freedom in the digital age was widely discussed across the 'blogosphere.' While I can see how some of his arguments could be taken as alarmist, nearly every page of this articulate and thoughtful diatribe made me think in a more critical way about our gadgets, our unprecented (and often unfiltered) access to information, and our growing interconnectedness via the Internet. A bold and stimulating book.

Honorable Mentions for 2011: The First Man, Albert Camus; Lost City Radio, Daniel Alarcon; The View From Castle Rock, Alice Munro; Technopoly, Neil Postman; The Virginian, Owen Wister; The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens (Mutt Ploughman's 2011 Dickensfest selection); Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror, Jason Zinoman

Friday, December 02, 2011

Mutt Ploughman’s Best Books of 2011

Returning since taking 2010 off to focus on Melville books, Mutt Ploughman brings you his ten favorites reads of the year 2011.

10. You Know When the Men Are Gone, Siobhan Fallon. Have to disclose that Siobhan Fallon was a classmate of mine in the Creative Writing program at The New School in NYC from 1998-2000, and while I am thrilled to learn of her good fortune, her debut story collection succeeds entirely on its own merit. A powerful grouping of tales set in the Iraq/Afghanistan wars, about not the soldiers themselves so much as their family members left behind at Fort Hood, Texas. This book is filled with beautiful prose and powerful moments while relating important stories about the tragic and far-reaching effects of armed conflict. In “Gold Star,” the brief closer, a busy, overwhelmed young mother driving around a crowded commissary parking lot finds a spot marked by said star – one that we learn she can occupy, because it is reserved for the relatives of those who paid the ultimate price. This terrific book is filled with such searing details.

9. The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka, Ernst Pawel. Here is a rich and colorful biography of one of the great writers of the 20th century, in spite of his having led such a short life (Franz Kafka died in his early 40s in 1924). There have been a number of biographies of Kafka, but none of them seem to fully “definitive.” This one, published in the 1980s and out of print now, was enjoyable to me for a number of reasons. It’s written in a forceful, sometimes opinionated style and not without a sense of drama and humor. It also provides enlightening analyses of Kafka’s Jewish identity and its influence on his work; the geopolitical situation in around his native Czech Republic before and during World War I; and his personal relationships with his parents, friends, and women. His sickly disposition and struggles with emotional intimacy seem to have made him a difficult person to know, let alone love, but his brilliant prose and insights into the human condition make him a fascinating subject, treated thoroughly and competently in this fine study.

8. Conquest of the Useless, Werner Herzog. One of the most unique nonfiction titles I’ve read in some time, which is only fitting considering the uniqueness of its author. Fearless, stubborn, and insightful filmmaker Herzog, who is responsible for some of the great documentary and fictional films of the last 30 years such as Grizzly Man, Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Nosferatu the Vampire, traveled to the Amazon jungle in 1979 to begin production on his film Fitzcarraldo. Destined to become another classic, this production faced a series of monumental obstacles, culminating in Herzog’s nearly insane attempt to film a scene in which a 300-ton riverboat is transported over a mountain without using any modern machinery. Conquest of the Useless is a journal of his three-year experience making this film; but it is not a production diary. Rather, it is a conceptual, philosophical dreamlog, a collection of thoughts and ideas that combine to present a fascinating and powerful portrait of a master artist in the throes of creation. The surprise is that Herzog can craft images in words as well as he can capture them on film.

7. Fairy Tale, Alice Thomas Ellis. A brief, hallucinatory, sometimes even nightmarish novel by the late Welsh writer Ellis, who was known for being a Catholic but also highly critical of the modern Church. Like her break0ut first novel from the 1960s called The Sin-Eater, this one, among her last works, contains a unique mixture of family dynamics, wicked satire, and Welsh mythology. A young English couple decides to eschew city life and move to the remote and harsh country of rural Wales, where the naïve wife desires to start a family as soon as possible. But the tale gets more complicated when an elderly relative and her friend decide to come stay for a while, around the same time a group of four “Watchers” – wandering spirits – decide to target the house and its occupants for their own brand of mayhem. In the right hands, this could make for a stark and creepy film adaptation.

6. Red Dust, Ma Jian. When I saw this title at a used book sale and read it described as “a Chinese On the Road,” that was more or less all I needed, since it is not hard to have a sense of fascination about China if you’re from this country, and Kerouac’s book is a personal favorite. The book itself did not disappoint, although it’s hard to compare this journey to Kerouac’s or anything American, for that matter. Published in China in the 80s at the height of the Cultural Revolution, it follows its author from his danger-courting Bohemian lifestyle as a painter and writer in Beijing into self-imposed exile, wandering aimlessly all across the entire expanse of China. I can recommend this book for numerous reasons – the prose, even in translation from the original Chinese, is lovely and poetic, which seems hard to believe; the innumerable descriptions of stunning archeological sites and religious temples all across that magnificent country; the fascinating window it offers into the lifestyles and customs of poor Chinese in rural areas; and, not unimportantly, the poingnant account of the Spiritual desolation that overtakes its author, a product of a Communist regime who nonethless seems to pine for the transcendent. This book is not easy to find, but well worth the search. The author, Ma Jian, remains a dissident to this day, living in London, with his books banned in China.

5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling. Call me a snob if you want, but I would not put any of the Harry Potter books on a list of great reads if it was only about the excellence of the writing. I’ve always found J.K. Rowling’s writing fairly pedestrian and cliched. But a great novel is also about storytelling, and with this entire series, all seven books, Rowling accomplished something extremely rare and special: a global phenomenon that stayed true to its origins and delivered on an unbelievable amount of expectations all the way to this final installment. Having hit a low point in her personal life in the 1990s, a single mother on public assistance, Rowling took an idea she had come up with on a commuter train and spun it into gold. But it’s not just that the books were spectacularly popular; they painstakingly and lovingly constructed an entire world of their own, and blew open the imaginations of millions of children around the world. This final book ties together a dizzying amount of storylines in an exciting but graceful manner and still manages to amaze us with a final showdown that everyone could see coming from the first. A fairly perfunctory Epilogue showing the main characters well into the future can be forgiven of a novelist that made us care for three young people who grew up casting magic spells and supporting each other through all kinds of trials, right before our inner eyes.

4. Onitsha, J.M.G. LeClézio. I had wanted to read the French novelist LeClézio since he won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature, and I was lucky that the co-founder of this blog found a copy of this novel for me while on a business trip in California. (Mad props, Duke Altum!) This is a beautiful and thoughtful novel, especially to any American reader who has an interest in, well, the rest of the world. What I really enjoyed about is that it is a story seen through the eyes of its 12-year-old protagonist, a boy named Fintan, whose Italian mother brings him to a remote outpost along the Niger River in Africa to meet his English father for the first time. In inhabiting his youthful character so seamlessly, LeClézio gives us both the spacious beauty and the harshness of the African landscape with a heart full of wonder, and shows us how absurd the brutality of colonialsm appears when viewed through the eyes of innocence. Based on this one performance, it is easy to see why this writer was honored for his contributions to world literature.

3. Skippy Dies, Paul Murray. The biggest surprise of the year for me, here is a hefty, rollicking, big-hearted comic novel set in a Dublin boarding school that seemed to represent better than any single novel I’ve seen in a long time all the great things about Irish culture. In the darkly funny opening set-piece, Skippy, a nerdy, 14-year-old boy with a hopeless crush on a girl from a sister institution, dies choking on a doughnut, an episode of zaniness that for me recalled David Foster Wallace. From there the novel goes back and catalogues how this event came to occur, following a gaggle of misfits and outcasts through a madcap school year. The crazed antics of the pre-pubescent boys made for many utterly hilarious scenes to this reader; meanwhile, the adults, including a stern priest and a politician headmaster, often behave even worse. Yet Murray judges no one, be they priests, teachers, or students. This novel inevitably buckles at times from too much weight, as it dabbles into string theory, the poetry of Robert Frost, the history of World War I, hip-hop, and the Irish drug culture. But the ambition here is winning and harnessed mostly with aplomb; the laughs are more like howls; and the emotions swing back and forth widely, making for a hugely satisfying read.

2. A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan. To say that this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is about time itself sounds pretentious as hell. Yet it is; and thank God we have brave writers like Egan to take such themes and run with them. It makes this bold, fresh, but mysterious novel a bit of a head-scratcher – but Egan (whose Look at Me was my Best Book of 2009), is a daring writer who pays close attention to culture, literature, technology, and spirituality in our era and she has the intellectual and artistic muscle to turn it into something haunting and elegant. Goon Squad is a series of interlocking stories whose characters wander in and out of one another’s lives across about 40 years of time, including a stretch into the future. Really, it’s hard to say more than that. The punk culture of the 1970s in California is one setting, as is the music scene of our time, but this book is really about the way people relate and communicate with one another as time grinds every single one of us, to a man or woman, down. Sounds depressing, and at times it is; but because Egan dares to question what it means to live in these times, around these people we know but don’t know – and writes about it all beautifully and insightfully – it makes for a novel that feels something like a literary submarine. It runs silent, and it runs deep.

1. The City & The City, China Miéville. I must say here that the top three books on this list all ran very, very closely alongside one another to the end of this year. So maybe on another day this novel by China Miéville, a sometime science-fiction writer who with every new book ventures further beyond description, would not be placed on the top spot. But I love a bold and fearless imagination, and this writer has one that seems bristling to explode out of whatever box you put it in. The sheer originality and convincing execution of this noirish, genre-bending spellbinder was utterly impressive to me, and was the sort of read that reminds me that your only limitations in fiction are self-imposed. A dystopian crime thriller set in a vaguely central-European country, it imagines two cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma, posited right up against one another, with a nebulous, danger-ridden border territory in between known only as “Breach.” The book opens with inspector Tyador Borlu of the “Extreme Crime Squad” of Beszel called to the scene of a young woman’s murder, which at first appears routine. But investigating the case leads Borlu across the border into Ul Qoma, a far different and more sinister city, where he is is forced to work with a shady detective named Qussim Dhatt. But a series of unpredictable events leads Borlu to stumble into Breach – which is controlled by an unnamed police squad, and from which few ever return. The City & The City is so imaginative and so cleanly executed that it reads like a Chandler novel processed through George Orwell’s 1984 and sprinkled with a healthy dose of Philip K. Dick. It’s not perfect, and at times it almost seems too confusing for any storyteller to handle no matter how smart they are. But those feelings come rarely, because for most of the book you are hurtling around on tracks you can’t see and at great speed, in this dark but exhiliarting literary carnival.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Visionary

In Celebration of My Wife’s 40th Birthday

visionary. n. 3. one having unusual foresight and imagination. (

HERE ARE A FEW THINGS MY BRIDE, born forty years ago today, has loved her entire life:

Photographs. Maps. Graph paper. Floor plans. Watercolors. Natural light. Autumn colors. Beaches and coastlines. And Christ, the Name she tends to use when referring to the Son of God.

All of these things, save one, are linked by a common thread: they are visual. You encounter them directly through the eye. Except for Christ, whom none of us have seen with our eyes, who tells us in the Gospel that we are blessed by virtue of the very fact. Yet it is through her love of Him that she sees Him in all of these other things – in the beauty of nature; in the play of light and shadow; in smiles and facial expressions caught by cameras; in the ingenuity of human designs, our humble attempts to create order from chaos.

Kelly Elizabeth Lovell often describes herself as a “visual” person. She has an indisputable gift for seeing. It’s easy to overlook, yet few do it well. Those with the blessing of eyesight look at things easily enough, but not everyone sees them clearly. I am an example. I’m not very good at seeing things the way they are sometimes – from the most complex conceptual problem down to the smallest gaggle of objects.

Take clothing, or what others call “style.” Kelly and I are blessed with two beautiful daughters, as well as a son. A blind man can see that my girls are pretty, but their own father can’t select clothes for them to save his life. This won’t be much of a problem very soon, because these bright girls, though still quite young, are already learning that it is best to factor Dad completely out of this equation.

But up until now, I would try to choose outfits for them, often disastrously. I can look at them in an ensemble I chose a hundred times in a row and not see that the clothes do not match. But Kelly looks at them once, in a half-second, and declares whether the outfit works or not. It may not be very uncommon in a mother, but I still find this quality amazing because I do not have it.

Another example is home décor. I have no idea whatsoever how to design or decorate a room to make it appealing. But Kelly spends only a little time in a contained space that may need some help, and although she has no formal training, she quickly forms a vision in her mind of how wonderful the room could look.

If you watch her closely, you can literally see this vision develop. It’s fascinating. Her eyes narrow; she gets uncharacteristically silent, almost contemplative. The wheels start turning. She puts one finger on her bottom lip. Her eyes float across a surface or a plane. You give it about five minutes, maybe ten. Then she says something like, “I think that television cabinet would look better in the corner. Having it there is bothering me. The walls need a blue color, maybe a pale blue; I need to look at samples. I definitely want to put some shelves on this wall over here for framed pictures….”

I can stare at the same surfaces, and not only do I not understand what they ought to be “wearing,” but I can hardly see what she is even then meticulously describing. No matter. She can see it, quite vividly, as if it’s already there.

But the most striking example of Kelly’s visual acuity by far can be found in her photographs. Taking pictures is one of my wife’s most authentic forms of self-expression. She has a great passion for this simple activity, also surprisingly difficult to do well. It is hard to perfect because you must have an innate sense of what you want to capture.

I don’t mean that in terms of specifics: you don’t take your camera on a nature hike in the woods knowing ahead of time that you want to shoot this particular bird’s nest against that corner of the sky at exactly 4:00 p.m. I mean that you have to know a great visual arrangement when it comes together. You have to be able to see it. When you do, it is a matter of getting the camera ready and shooting. Over and over, if you are a perfectionist, like Kelly. This is not something you can learn or acquire; at least not with ease. It’s a gift.

One of my favorite examples of her gift is in a photograph Kelly took in November 2001, while we were visiting Ireland, a country to which both of us can trace some common ancestry. We had been in country for about five days, and our tour group had stopped in rural County Cavan, to spend the night at a place known as Cabra Castle. We reached the castle in the late afternoon and were given a little free time before reconvening for dinner. Everyone went off in their own direction.

I told Kelly that I needed to take a walk. She could tell that I was feeling restless, almost irritable, but she gave me some space. What she did not know was that I had been carrying around an engagement ring for five agonizing days and had found, up until that evening, no appropriate opportunity to propose. I was having trouble containing my nerves.

Anyway, while I was brooding and trying to orchestrate the correct moment, Kelly decided to take her camera around the castle grounds, to see if anything would stand out as a potential subject. She took numerous pictures of the castle and the natural beauty surrounding it. At one point, coming back towards the manor itself down the long entrance roadway, she spotted a little grove of tailored shrubbery with a flagstone path in front of one side of the castle. There were a few birdbaths and a large topiary archway, under which had been positioned a whitewashed, cast-iron bench. One could assume there would be many flowers in the summertime, but we were there on an overcast, cold day out of season.

When Kelly saw this bucolic little oasis, she promptly stopped and took a photo of the white bench from behind, capturing the arch, the flagstones, the rest of the garden, and the stately castle looming in the background. To her it must have simply felt like one of those images she would want to hold on to. But it seems to me that there was more to her snapping that picture at that moment. My theory is that she not only saw the beauty of what was there before her, but that she also had a kind of subconscious, preemptive vision of what could be at that particular place.

What Kelly could not know when she took the picture is that later that evening I would bring her to that exact spot, unaware that she had been there, and ask her to marry me on the same white bench. But I thank God for her vision, because to this day we have her wonderful image framed on a wall in our home. There is no way to prove to others that Kelly took the picture before we became engaged. But she and I know what happened, and I love that aspect of the story most of all – at least, up until the instant when she said “Yes,” the sort of moment that has a way of obscuring all others.

This story illustrates something fundamental about my wife, the way she expresses herself, and the way she understands and connects to the world and its Creator. It has to do with her gift for seeing, the one I have been attempting to describe. She has an innate ability not only to see things as they are, but also how they might become. She can see beauty as clearly as the rest of us, but she can also see promise.

Once she has done so, she has a desire, maybe even a need, to communicate it. She can take a few scattered photographs and arrange them in a scrapbook with colored paper to create the beautiful family heirloom that, to her, the pictures were always meant to become. She can assess an uninspiring, closed space and envision a haven, one you’d draw comfort and solace from when you walk in the door at night. To her that place is there from the start. It only needs to be coaxed from behind a veil that stands between it and the rest of us who are unable to see it.

She does this with people, too. If only we could see ourselves, I tell myself, the way Kelly sees us. For I have known very few people who can hone right in on a person’s inherent goodness, the light of God that shines out from all of us, the way my wife can. If you achieve something or some good fortune falls upon you, you may be inclined to cheer about it; maybe tell a few friends; post it on Facebook. My wife will celebrate it, take genuine joy from it, as if the achievement or blessing was her own. In one sense, it is: if someone she knows or loves finds their way to grace, then in a way I find profound and beautiful, so does she.

One of the things I admire the most about Kelly, to be sure, is the trust she has in her own vision. She knows things when she sees them. This has helped her overcome some painful tribulations at earlier points in her life, en route to uncovering a deep sense of Christian faith. Though she has had strong models to follow, Kelly largely found her own way to Christ, in large part because of her capacity to recognize Him. She saw Him; she knew Him upon sight; and she ran to Him, as an innocent daughter runs to her father’s arms.

And, Heaven knows, she has also trusted her vision when it comes to your scribe. Sometimes I wonder what she saw, almost ten years ago now, when she said “Yes” to me on that bench in Ireland. In weaker moments, I admit, I wonder if she is seeing it still.

At these times, I must remember what I have learned about Kelly. She knows what she sees, and she loves what she loves. Once she does, there is no turning it away. As one of her favorite songwriters once put it, she has “a love you can’t defeat.”

As someone who carries inside a flame to create against overpowering odds, I am aware that her vision of me is indispensable if I hope to achieve success. It is a gift I cannot repay, no matter how hard I try.

There is only one thing my wife sometimes has trouble seeing, ironically enough, and that is herself. But not too worry. I don’t always see everything around me with clarity; I don’t easily perceive the logic of arrangements; I can’t find my way sometimes through all the obscurities to love God or His children in the mother-hearted way that Kelly Lovell can.

But I can see Kelly Lovell – clear as a blazing fire miles ahead of a caravan winding its solitary way through the desert night. I’m the one who stood across from her and devoted myself to her. I can articulate what I saw then, and what I see and celebrate now. She is beautiful, precious, intelligent, and special; the mother of my babies; the bride of my dreams. She is forty years old today. And she is mine.

Jude Joseph Lovell
October 18, 2011

Friday, September 16, 2011

Working the Quill

A Report from Phase II of What Was Formerly Known as the Melville, PA Project

I have been at sea, metaphorically, working on a first draft of my book on Herman Melville for almost eleven months now. At the time of my last missive here concerning the project, Returning to Port, I had drafted an Introduction and not a whole lot else. I feel the time has come to provide another update on the project to the legions of readers who, no doubt, are waiting impatiently for the end result, so they can launch on their own adventures with “Uncle Herm,” as I like to call him.

I have said before, and will repeat in the Intro to my book, that my goal is nothing less than single-handedly sparking off the “second Melville revival.” However ambitious that is, the pressure falls on me to produce the book that will achieve it! No one ever got anywhere by thinking small.

What a massive task writing a book is! I have tried to do it before. And have succeeded at least in completing a couple drafts, but of books that up until now have remained unpublished. But I know, at least, how much work it takes to write something at an extended length and to put in the effort to bring it to some kind of close. For the current book, I have been writing since late October 2010, and while it has not been easy to find the time or to organize my thoughts and words, I can report happily that the discipline has been there, for the most part, to work steadily for most of these eleven months.

Andrew Delanco, author of the great biography Melville: His World and Work, which I draw on pretty heavily in my own manuscript, has observed elsewhere that when you write a book specifically about another person, you feel like you are living with them. To some extent I can now vouch for that statement’s accuracy. While I don’t feel so much like I have been a roommate of Herman Melville’s that man certainly has been in my head for quite some time now. And I hope that has led to some growth and development of my understanding of writing, literature, and the world around me. Maybe even of things beyond the world, such as God.

Here is what I have produced so far: the aforementioned Introduction, which I would describe as “unsalvageable” at this point, meaning that it has to be re-written, but it served as a starting point at the time I inscribed it. After that, since I conducted my reading experiment with his work over the course of one year, I decided to organize the main body of my book into twelve chapters, each named after the corresponding month of the year. Hence, the first chapter is simply called “January,” etc. A small note informs the reader of the works I focused on during that month, and some of them, certainly, overlap from one month to another.

In each chapter I provide my own individual and non-scholarly reactions to the works I read that month. In some places I draw connections to my own experiences; in others I draw bridges between Melville’s stories and recent offerings from popular culture, usually movies, that have occurred to me – at different points I have referenced such diverse works as the writings of Stephen King, Charles Dickens, and Edgar Allan Poe; the films The Untouchables, Dead Poets Society, and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock; and musicians like Bob Dylan and heavy metal gurus Mastodon, who based an entire album on Melville’s Moby-Dick.

To date I have completed “January” through “June,” and at this writing I hope to wrap up “July” in the next two weeks, which means the book is over halfway finished. That’s not within the one year that I said all along I’d allow myself, but that goal was highly ambitious to begin with, and I knew it to be so. Being over the halfway point is still pretty good – I will take it. I feel like I am within sight of the end, which is when the real work actually begins…..

An interesting literary challenge for me in the next few months will be how to push the book through these last five chapters. This is because it took me only until July 2010 to finish reading all of Melville’s novels, and the short stories I could find. From that point on I read two biographies, one contemporary novel that was clearly written in the tradition of Melville’s work, and then re-read Mardi, Melville’s third novel, a second time. Whereas the entire book so far has been driven by reflections on his books, now I have to write a compelling story about Melville’s life and the way my own life has informed my study of his, in a way that continues to engage readers’ attention.

What sort of book is it? It’s a little hard to say, which I hope means that it’s a unique take on a time-worn subject. I know of at least three major biographies of Melville, as well as a number of smaller-scale ones; there are almost endless titles that approach his work critically, which have come in a fairly steady stream from the early 20th century on. What can I possibly add to what’s already been said? The answer, in a nutshell, is my own story. Since many, many people have tried to become writers, but no one else has shared my own personal path, only I can connect my own experience to Melville’s. The question is, can I make that combination interesting to any other reader?

The title of my book has undergone many transformations so far, and may continue to, but the one I am going with at the moment is Forever Voyaging: One Writer’s Apprenticeship With Herman Melville. Hopefully that title can generate some interest in the book’s contents. It’s really about two things: it’s about Melville and his work, from the point of view of someone who is trying to do the same job. In that sense, the book is a kind of apprenticeship; hence the current subtitle. I can’t do a real apprenticeship with Melville, and I am not accomplished enough to be invited to one of those high-end writing communities like Yaddo or Bread Loaf. So I have undertaken my own personal course of study, with the man who wrote what I believe is America’s finest novel as instructor.

The other thing that the book is is a kind of literary memoir, a chronicle of my own writing journey – with its numerous failures and few successes – and an attempt to examine closely what this craft of fiction writing is really all about. I explore my own writings, unpublished though the great majority of them, how I wrote them, what worked and what did not and the lessons I learned. And I examine the potent idea of failure, in writing and in other aspects of life. I dig into how learning to write stories with value and meaning is one way to power through failures and teach oneself how to heal from self-inflicted wounds and achieve success – or die, someday, still making the attempt. As singer-songwriter Bill Mallonee put it in his brilliant song about baseball-as-metaphor for the creative arts, called “You Give it All Your Heart:” “We may not make it out of the bush leagues/But that’s not why we’re here.”

When I reach the end of my book, I have a plan for an Epilogue, in which I will attempt to sum up the whole project and take a last look at how I can move forward. The last segment will be called “From Hell’s Heart I Stab at Thee: On Melville and Overcoming Failure.” I plan to explain how I take heart and strength from Melville’s example, a man who experienced failure and despair again and again, who tragically outlived both of his two young sons, and who died largely forgotten – but whose great writings later vindicated his life’s work a hundred fold.

That title refers to the astounding moment in Moby-Dick, the famous third day of the hunt for the white whale, when Ahab bestraddles the small boat he is on, grasps his own harpoon, and sails straight into the white whale’s grill. “I spit my last breath at thee,” he howls, “from hell’s heart I stab at thee!!!” I hope not to be in hell when I do it, but this is the way I want to attack everything that stands in the way of delivering a return on God’s investment of talent, however large or small, in me.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

10 Spot: Albums

Duke, co-founder of The Secret Thread and "other half" of your humble scribe, has challenged me to make my maiden voyage into this series he calls "10 Spot." I hereby accept the challenge. Below you will find the Top 10 albums that I would have absolutely no issue with listening to exclusively for the rest of my days: As for the next challenge, Duke, bring it.

1. Tunnel of Love, Bruce Springsteen
2. The Joshua Tree, U2
3. Between Five and Seven, John Gorka
4. Moving Pictures, Rush
5. Clutching at Straws, Marillion
6. Master of Puppets, Metallica
7. Little Earthquakes, Tori Amos
8. Audible Sigh, Vigilantes of Love
9. The Soul Cages, Sting
10. Umbrella, The Innocence Mission

Friday, May 13, 2011

Love and Prayers: Aunt Kath

A Birthday Tribute
by Mutt Ploughman

TO SAY THAT KATHLEEN WALSH has been a “presence” in my life is a little like saying the ocean is a presence in the life of a sperm whale. Technically, of course, it is not untrue. It’s just a wee bit understated. “Aunt Kathy,” or simply “Aunt Kath,” as she is known to me and numerous others, is a woman whose love, if you are lucky enough to have it, is something you feel everywhere you go. You don’t have to be with her physically, for I see her only on certain occasions. It’s just there.

I write this now while outside of my window a glorious Spring day is dawning over eastern Pennsylvania. Here I have landed, after living in Chicago, where I first came to know Aunt Kath; then New Jersey; then Cincinnati; then Georgia, Philadelphia, New Jersey again, and finally the Lehigh Valley, back in Pennsylvania. During that time, Aunt Kath has lived in the Chicago area; then Lansing, Michigan; then Lubbock, Texas; then in the Raleigh-Durham region of North Carolina, where she has remained for the last 23 years. I am merely one of her thirty-four nieces and nephews, not to mention an entire brood of grand-nieces and grand-nephews, too voluminous to name even if I was able to.

I list these varying places and phases of life because I want you, reader, to consider the first paragraph, above, in light of the second. It’s not as though I have seen a great deal of Aunt Kath in my time on earth so far. And it’s not even close to true that I am the only locus of her love and attention. Yet I still feel her “presence” all the time. One might think this tells you all you need to know about the wonder and witness that is my Aunt Kath.

In one sense, it does; but it also doesn’t.

AUNT KATH, WHO IS celebrating her seventieth birthday this month, does not have her own children. Yet she is to me the very essence of what “family” means and implies. I have in my possession a tiny, very old spiral notebook that was kept by her father, Joseph A. Walsh, containing notes from a spiritual retreat he made in 1940, before Aunt Kath was even born. The very first words he wrote in that notebook are, “Get the family spirit.” Aunt Kath caught that bug from both of her extraordinary parents, and has not been able to shake it for seventy years.

She is the fourth of nine children, all of whom are vivacious, unselfish, gifted people today (one is my mother, who landed about the same distance from the tree). With a couple of elderly relatives in the mix, she grew up in a household of thirteen, with four other sisters alone. How a young woman coming up in an environment such as this learns to distinguish herself, I can’t begin to guess. But what I know of her as an adult suggests that she understood early on that to make her “mark,” so to speak, she should embrace her workaday role in a family unit that was greater than its individual parts.

Thrust into this situation, you could either wander off into a thicket of bitterness and obscurity over the years; or, to put it succinctly, you could learn to pay attention to, and even to serve, the needs of others. If you consider the career my aunt ended up in, as we will do shortly here, you will understand the choice she made.

This is a woman who has embodied “the family spirit” her entire life, and how proud she must make her late father! By the time I came around, I was lucky enough to be just one of many beneficiaries in an extended family that included Kathleen Walsh. Here are merely a few examples of this experience:

• From the time I was very small in Chicago, Illinois, Aunt Kath used to take us (I have five siblings) on road trips in her car. She had a favorite brand of mints called “Velamints.” Every single time we left to go somewhere, she would produce a roll of them and declare in an enthusiastic voice, “Let’s start things off with a Velamint!” To this day we joke with her about that, and I cannot see any kind of mint, especially in a car, without remembering it. It made us feel included; it made us happy – no matter what mood we started out in. Did I mention Aunt Kath is smart, too?

• Every single year, about a month before Christmas, for as long as I can remember, Aunt Kath has sent an Advent calendar to my address. It didn’t matter if I was 5, 25, or 39 – an Advent calendar has always arrived in time. I know she has done the same for my other siblings, all of whom, like me, now have their own families. And she probably does it for my twenty-eight other cousins on her side, too. If I find myself feeling too harried and distracted as the Christmas season approaches, I know that at least one person will always help me remember what it’s really about.

• When I was a young man serving in the U.S. Army in Georgia, I visited her once at her North Carolina home over a weekend. There we were, an odd couple: a single military officer in his twenties and his aunt, hanging around her town. But it’s part of Aunt Kath’s nature to come to you no matter where you are in life, or in the world (see next bullet point). We have a mutual love for coffee, and I remember I was assigned at the time to an infantry unit nicknamed “the Sledgehammer Brigade.” So she brought me to a little drive-through coffee stand one morning that served a super-strong blend they called “the Sledgehammer,” and we spent that morning swapping stories over buckets of hot brew.

• In 2005, I took a vacation with my family (a wife and two daughters by then), plus two of my brothers and their families, to a beach house in the Outer Banks, North Carolina. When Aunt Kath got wind of this, she decided to come see us. But she didn’t merely visit. She drove clear across the state, after work, embroiled in a huge traffic jam of beachgoers. And she did it with a carload of food: a spectacular, homemade, family-style meal, including dessert, all prepared by her in her “spare” time. She then had to turn around and drive all the way back home when the meal was through.

• To this day, every note, card, or gift I have ever received from her signs off in the same way: “Love and prayers, Aunt Kath.” Love and prayers. Do we really need anything else? I tell you sincerely: those two words do not just make me think of her. In my mind, they’re more like synonyms for the words “Aunt” and “Kath.”

JESUS CHRIST ONCE SAID to his disciples, according to the Gospel of Luke, “the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” This observation always calls to mind my Aunt Kath’s career. From where I sit, it would be extraordinary enough if my tribute to her ended with the last point above. Yet there is her remarkable record of service to consider.

Aunt Kath has been a social worker for more than four decades and for the last 20+ years has served as the Executive Director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina. What this means is that it is no exaggeration to say her entire career has been occupied with and driven by serving others – namely the poor.

Now, with this stalwart longevity to her name and her reputation, Aunt Kath is beginning to receive honors, commensurate with such lengthy and vital stewardship. She is the recipient, in recent years, of The Order of the Long Leaf Pine, a distinction shared by such luminaries as the Reverend Billy Graham, Maya Angelou, and Michael Jordan – the highest civilian award bestowed by the State of North Carolina. She has also been presented with the Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice from the Vatican, on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI. Translated into English as “For Church and Pope,” this award is also known as “The Cross of Honor,” and it is the highest award given by the Vatican to the Laity.

When Aunt Kath received this award, she was asked to give remarks. Rising to the occasion, she declared by way of opening, “I greet you this evening with a joyful Alleluia to our God…..” Notice she did not say “to God” or “to my God;” she said “to our God.” He’s our Father, she reminded us. Get the family spirit.

I know Aunt Kath would not want me to carry on at too much length about these distinctions, which are, needless to say, richly deserved. But my familial pride in her is so great that in marking her milestone birthday, I feel I must express it in writing.

So let me put it this way: if I were among the needy of this world, I would want Aunt Kath looking out for me. And of course, at 40 years old, I know enough now to comprehend that in some ways, I am; and in every way, she is.

WHAT IF SOMEONE was to live each day as though everyone they encountered was part of their family? Kathleen Walsh’s first seventy years form a living answer to this question. May she live on for another seventy, filling the dining rooms, conference rooms, and vestibules of a lost world with her “joyful Alleluias.” For those of us wandering around that same world can always use her faithful love and prayers.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Black Sky Screaming

A fiction inspired by Genesis 1:2 (KJV)
by Mutt Ploughman

IN THE BLACKNESS before dawn in a time when there is no dawn, here I coil, awaiting the Voice. If I were to trip into a crevasse in a firmament yet to materialize and tumble down through the flume of centuries, entering an age where there is a language to appropriate, I might describe myself as a presence, a formless entity, an ether.

No one will ever see me, but everyone shall know me, feel me, some will burn with me, even if they do not recognize me. Women will cry out with the knowledge of my pain; artists female and male will ache to impel me from within. But now, in this moment, I am alone.

When, only an instant ago, I learned there are Three of us, I tried to hold on to the feeling that knowledge stirred, so I can use it as a motivator for what I will soon be called to do, but too much time has passed. I cannot form a picture of the First, and the Second’s divine destiny is to lay in wait for a long time, until the moment is right. The First determines that. Although there are Three of us, and we are One, there is still a hierarchy. I do not dictate to the Voice when to speak. Instead I wait.

Though it does not yet exist, time has gotten away from me. I was sent out, or up, or down, to here, where I am to stand ready until further notice.

HERE I CROUCH, a dream of tomorrow, set just after yesterday. I am the great inhalation that immediately precedes the Voice.

I AM AWARE of two things only. One is darkness. The other is water. The face of the deep stares into mine; its gaze penetrates the black surrounding me.

I have no structure, I have no body, I have no walls, I have no lineaments. If I had veins, they would run not with blood, but with anticipation, in pure liquid form. I am undiluted potential; a gigantic amoeba of inclination; inertia at a standstill; the pregnant cloud before the Flood. I suspend just above the surface, so close I can feel the spray.

When I hear the Voice, I can imagine vividly what I will do! For I possess an imagination, or there would be no me. I do not only have an imagination, I am imagination—the Imagination. If I was not, these words would not be someday read and pondered, for I imagined a reader, all readers, long before the First will form the earliest of them out of the dirt. I had a vision that someday someone will have vision. Nothing will ever be realized without me, without what I am very soon to do. That is what I bring to the Three.

I become aware of a third entity, beyond myself and the waters. That is a noise: a continuous swell of noise, like a long cry, like a sustained scream. The noise rises from the throat of the dark. It climbs; it grows; increasing always, but never cresting, like a sky endlessly echoing its own limitlessness. I know what the scream is. It is rage: the rage of an immensity that understands that, in the end, a black sky is nothing more than a void, and a void is nothing. But I am a Spirit, not a void. A spirit becomes its proper self only when it rises.

I understand the rage; I sympathize with the dark. But to save it I must sabotage it. I will penetrate it; twist up in and then back down through it—down, down to the water. I have no heart, but I have love, and love can transform a void.


I will plunge into that water. In so doing I will fling into perpetual revolution the wheel of an enormous mill, one that will churn through all the ages, that will siphon the waters into a long canal of time, pushing them downhill, onward, ever-forward. I will dive, arrowing blindly into the black depths, burrowing into the silence that the drowning of the sky’s scream leaves behind, knowing I am setting the precedent for all those beings, who will only come to exist in the first place because of what I am initiating, to one day follow.

Blessed am I that the First sees fit to deploy me in such a way as to spark an everlasting succession of quickfires, whose accumulating blaze will clarify his generous genius forever and ever!

The First knows, as much as he knows all, that I exist for the call of his Voice, that I have always anticipated it, that I will open the ears of the creatures he will create to answer it. For even though many will not know or acknowledge it, they too will exist for the same thing. Thus will he pour himself into me at the very moment he speaks with the Voice; he will plunge into me just as I plunge into that water, and down we both shall go.

But at some point, when we have submerged ourselves deeply enough into that soundlessness, he will redirect me, and I will shoot upwards again. I will rise. I will streak towards the surface with an urgency that is as incorrigible as it is inexpressible, that routs all other hungers.

This will be my bequest to every one of his creations who feels compelled to follow my wake. It will curl every potter’s fingers around lumps of clay; it will set every dancer’s feet into rhythmic step; it will promote every singer’s breath into song; it will lower every scribe’s hand to the white page.

We will rise to the surface together, all of us; rushing upward, where the screaming sky begs us to slice it, like the waters, wide open.

HERE I COIL, primed for the moment, any day now but here already, when the Voice issues its ecstatic command, Go.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Introducing "10 Spot": All That You Can't Leave Behind

Duke Altum here once again, and this time I'm laying down the gauntlet for Mutt with a fun challenge... readers, you can play along at home!

Everyone loves lists. Even moreso, everyone loves the proverbial "desert island" lists - in which you are forced to make hard choices and choose, to steal from U2, "all that you can't leave behind" in a certain category. Well we've never really made those lists here, and I thought it might be fun to try it.

I'm calling this series "10 Spot." Each one will highlight a different category. The object is simple: pretend you're going off to a desert island forever. You are allowed to bring 10 _____, and that's all you're ever going to have. What would they be? What are the absolute essential works you couldn't live without?? We'll cover novels, short story collections, non-fiction books, films and albums.

I'm going to post my entry, and I fully expect Mutt to follow up with his. (That's right Mutt. I'm calling you out - publicly!) Not a lot of commentary on these lists, because we do plenty of that as it is and actually, we've probably commented in these pages on most of these selections in one way or another already.

So, since no further introduction is needed, we begin with our first 10 Spot: Albums.

Here's my list of 10 records I would be happy to listen to over and over in perpetuity (in no particular order):

1. Chase the Buffalo, Pierce Pettis

2. Tunnel of Love, Bruce Springsteen

3. Darkness on the Edge of Town, Bruce Springsteen

4. Wrecking Ball, Emmylou Harris

5. Blister Soul, Vigilantes of Love

6. The Joshua Tree, U2

7. Oh Mercy, Bob Dylan

8. Clutching at Straws, Marillion

9. The Very Best of, The Pogues

10. Symphony #9, Beethoven

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Sold Down the River

Excerpt from the "May" chapter of my book in progress, Forever Voyaging: A Writer's Year-Long Adventure with Herman Melville.

THE NEXT BOOK I READ was the last full novel Herman Melville ever wrote, entitled The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857). [Biographer] Laurie Robertson-Lorant described this novel as a “funhouse whose mirrors reveal human character as inconsistent, unscrupulous, and unreliable,” but also called it “a tour-de-force of topical satire and teleological razzle-dazzle.” If you’re not really sure what the hell that even means, welcome to this portion of Forever Voyaging. You will feel right at home.

It seems fitting that this novel had to do with hucksterism, shady dealings, deception, and disillusionment. I can assure the reader that my grasp of the book floated on the same route as the fortunes of all the suckers in this novel, literally sold down the river. Of the two Melville works of fiction that I struggled with mightily during my experiment – this book and his final novella, Billy Budd, Sailor The Confidence-Man is the one I found the most baffling. I admit here and now that from the point of view of astute literary criticism, I am not the man for the job. But then I am fairly sure I will have long lost those readers who were seeking as much in the first place.

No, I probably will raise far more questions than provide answers about this unique and erratic novel. Indeed, one could argue that The Confidence-Man can hardly be called a novel at all. Our old friend Professor Bill Spengemann, featured in the last chapter, took this idea further and made the case that Melville didn’t really write any novels – Typee and Omoo were travelogues, Redburn was a memoir in hiding, Moby-Dick more of a biological treatise. I don’t know if I agree with the professor, but I can accept that The Confidence-Man seems to lack some of the ingredients that normally flavor a novel’s broth.

It has no discernable “plot,” for one. It has neither an easily identifiable narrator, nor a single protagonist the reader can get behind. It contains very little exposition, but is, rather, related mostly through dialogue. One reviewer described the book in this way: “a novel it is not, unless a novel means forty-five conversations held on board a steamer, conducted by passengers who might pass for the errata of creation.” I am not sure if I can articulate what “the errata of creation” refers to, but the fact that the reviewer steered so far from using the word “characters” in his description is telling enough.

The Confidence-Man seems to hearken back to an experience Melville had had twenty years earlier, when he travelled west for a time with a friend of his named Eli Fly. They had made their way out as far as the Rocky Mountains, but at one point they took a trek in a steamboat heading south down the Mississippi. Melville later published an account of this journey in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine. One gets the impression that Melville and Fly had the opportunity to meet and/or observe a lot of colorful characters on that one ride – people that stuck in the former’s mind, at least, long enough to be memorialized in his final novel. Not all of those characters would have been reputable. Indeed, there was a well-known book in this period of history called The Flash Times of Alabama and Mississippi by a man named Joseph Baldwin, containing the general observation of the times that “swindling was raised to the dignity of the fine arts.”

At the outset of the story, a “lamb-like man” in “cream colors” and “unaccompanied by friends” boards a riverboat, soon to head south down the Mississippi River, ironically named the Fidèle. (Interestingly enough, Melville at one point employs the phrase “great white bulk” to describe the boat; the reader cannot help but wonder if this was intended as a “wink-wink” reference to his own masterpiece, Moby-Dick.) We are never given much information on who this unnamed man is, but when he steps on board, he passes underneath a placard hung on the wall offering a reward for the capture of “a mysterious imposter, supposed to have recently arrived from the East.” This is enough to at least suggest less-than-honorable intentions on the part of the stranger without saying as much directly. Meanwhile, nearby, as the new passenger climbs on, the boat’s barber, William Cream (!), is just in the act of hanging up a sign of his own outside the door of his shop. The sign reads NO TRUST.

When I came across these opening lines, it led me to make an interesting association that may owe its existence to nothing more than coincidence. But the description of the man’s clothing as being in “cream colors” for me brought immediately to mind a passing stranger without a backstory in a very different novel that was written and published almost exactly one century later. A key incident near the conclusion of the great American novelist Flannery O’Connor’s 1960 novel The Violent Bear It Away (also her last) concerns the arrival from out of nowhere of a drifter, a passing stranger who picks up the story’s young protagonist, Francis Marion Tarwater, on a country road and ends up taking reprehensible advantage of him. I remembered from reading the novel a few times that O’Connor described this man as driving a “cream-colored car.” Both of these men appear outfitted, in a sense, in these “cream” tones – close to an ironic white – and neither has honorable intentions.

It may seem a tenuous connection at best, and yet it is a somewhat peculiar color with which to describe either a suit or a car. I also knew that O’Connor was steeped enough in Melville’s work to make mention of him in her letters on occasion and in lectures she made to college students during the 1950s and 60s. It’s interesting to consider the possibility of whether O’Connor had any thought of Melville or of The Confidence-Man while she wrote her own final novel.

Regardless, once this nefarious wanderer, who may or may not be wanted on criminal charges, steps aboard the Fidèle, he joins a stream of salesmen and charlatans who seem to have no other purpose for being there, or for traveling anywhere, other than to try to hawk things off on others. Gaining people’s confidence only to double-cross them was, in Robertson-Lorant’s analysis, “Amerca’s national pastime.” Throughout the length of the boat’s journey down the river, everyone is selling something: shares in “World Charity;” stock in the “Black Rapids Coal Company;” real estate in a development called “New Jerusalem;” quick medicines such as “Omni-Balsamic Reinvigorator” or my personal favorite, “Samaritan Pain Dissuader;” even a fantastical invention called “the Protean easy chair.” There is even one man on board the vessel who claims to be an “agent” of the rather dubious but wonderfully-named outfit called the “Philosophical Intelligence Office.”

In setting his tale on board a boat traveling its meandering way downriver towards an unknown destination – perhaps “destiny” is a better word – Melville joined himself to a storytelling tradition that was not new, but it was in the process of inserting itself into the American literary heritage. It will be hard to read Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) again, for example – not to mention his Life on the Mississippi – without thinking of The Confidence-Man, even though the storylines are dissimilar. William Faulkner wrote his own tale centered around a motley crew gathered together on a boat in his second novel, Mosquitoes (1927). Although not written by an American, there are times when Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) resembles Melville’s earlier book, especially near the end. Even today some adventurous novelists are still recalling the dead-and-gone era of steamboats, in overlooked novels such as Tim Gautreaux’s The Missing (2009), and the great and essentially Melvillean writer Stephen Wright’s dazzling Civil War novel The Amalgamation Polka (2006), which will receive separate attention later in this book.

With regard to the title of the The Confidence-Man, when I went into the novel I was prepared to believe that Melville was the first guy to use the term “confidence man,” and thus could be given credit for just about every story that came after with “con man” or “con artists” in it. But the truth is that he did not come up with it, as I learned through Melville’s esteemed biographers. In 1855, there were many stories appearing in American newspapers nationwide about a man named “William Thomson,” who traveled around the country swindling people every which way he could, and referred to himself using more than a dozen aliases. Melville had long taken an interest in hucksters and hucksterism; another fascination of his was P.T. Barnum, whose career Melville paid attention to throughout his lifetime. One resourceful New York journalist referred to the ubiquitous Mr. Thomson in an article as a “confidence-man,” and for whatever unknown reason, the term arrowed itself into the American lexicon.

Certainly around the time The Confidence-Man was written, there was a kind of bum-rush in America towards every kind of “get rich” scheme imaginable. It is a craze that has never really waned ever since; anyone suffering from insomnia, or who has had an infant under their care, and has surfed the television channels after midnight can attest to this. Of course, many conservative-types of Melville’s day – people like his rigidly straitlaced mother, for example – saw this as indisputable evidence of the start of a monumental moral decline in the United States. One could certainly advance an argument for this, but the decline would have to be characterized as a long and slow one that does not seem to be getting close to the bottom even today.

If none of this seems all that intriguing or even very original, I would point out to the reader that while The Confidence-Man is hard to characterize as a riveting read, it does seems to be more than just a “this place is going to hell in a handcart” kind of rant. Melville was too powerful of a thinker and too curious an explorer to simply wring his hands over the course of a 300-page novel about how he saw his country going to seed. It seems clear that his motives and intentions ran deeper, but articulating why this is so or how I know is a more complicated enterprise. I can explain it by saying it is a sense one gets while reading the novel, which is true, but it’s probably not sufficient for me to leave it there.

Even though most of the novel is related in other people’s voices – and where there is narration, the tone is like a documentary voice-over, from the point of view of an observer – one does not get an impression of particular detachment on the part of the author. Melville does not write this story in the journalistic or even diagnostic tone that he had written books like Israel Potter in, with anything related to himself far removed. The Confidence-Man feels like a novel written by a man who is deeply embroiled in the world he is creating. I don’t mean that literally, of course. Melville didn’t actually write the book from the cabin of a riverboat, recording all the sights and sounds. Yet one can almost hear the writer’s unanswered questions rattling off in an unknown voice behind every page of the book.

Even though Israel Potter had sold decently – not briskly, as none of Melville’s books had been literal best-sellers, with Typee coming the closest – it had not brought Melville the esteem he felt he had earned by this stage in his career, and it certainly did not help him to transcend his mounting financial challenges. When you read about his life, in what is clear to us now as the twilight of his career as a fiction writer (with the final exception of Billy Budd), you realize that it was around this time when Meville began to lose heart. At least in terms of writing stories, his spirit and his confidence seemed to be on the cusp of a precipitous slide.

This may be one reason why the novel fails to compel the way earlier books like Mardi and Moby-Dick, and Typee as well, were able to. If you were stuck outside on a winter’s night with insufficient protection from the elements, but carrying with you a copy of Mardi or Moby-Dick by some random happenstance, you could lay these books on the turf in front of you and warm your hands by the fire continuously engulfing them. If you only had The Confidence-Man with you and no gloves, you would need to keep hunting for shelter.

It’s not easy to tell why Melville’s mood shifted so much between his writing of Israel Potter and The Confidence-Man, which were, after all, only a couple of years apart. But I feel like I can understand it on some level. There’s only so long a writer can continue to write new and interesting stories if she feels as though none of her writings are being appreciated or even read. She may become overwhelmed by a sense that, no matter how much she challenges herself or changes direction, if no one reads her work, all of that effort has amounted to nothing. And each story she writes takes something out of her; each requires its own pound of flesh. There is a limit to how much flesh a writer can pony up without expecting something in return, and if that never comes, something will have to give.

I get this. I had been writing fiction for twenty years, and had come up with many stories, a few pretty good ones, but since no one had ever agreed to publish one up through 2010, I was feeling a lot like this myself. At some point, no matter how much the writer believes in himself, doubt creeps in. Will anyone, ever, give a shit about what I have to say? Do I even have anything to say? Perhaps I have spent twenty years saying what has already been said a billion times before. Do I have a voice, or not? This is a question that no one this side of heaven can definitively answer.

I believe that this profound quandary was what another esteemed but troubled American novelist, Ernest Hemingway, was talking about when he wrote in his brief acceptance of the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature that “if he’s a good enough writer, he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.” I think Melville certainly felt the weight of this challenge the more that he wrote. In my reading, The Confidence-Man reflects his increasing frustration, after all the work he had done hunting the leviathan of ultimate truth and understanding, at being no closer to finding answers.

(c) 2011 by Jude Joseph Lovell

Sunday, February 13, 2011

"The Fields of Memory"

There are several passages within the slim 200 pages comprising Paul Harding’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Tinkers that describe the inner workings of old clocks. Harding’s beautifully spare prose reveals these elegant machines to be intricate, precise constructions that, though clearly made by human hands, are able to contain and convey to us a great mystery – the passage of time.

One could apply the very same description to this extraordinary debut novel. A work of art that is obviously the product of meticulous and careful thinking, multi-layered and complex, every little word and phrase (like the tiny brass springs and screws inside the aforementioned clocks) the exactly right choice for its job… and yet, somehow, the whole transcends the sum of its parts to convey profound truths and fearful mysteries. Nothing less than death, the fragile bonds between fathers and sons (and how these complicated relationships echo and ripple across multiple generations), and yes, the passage of time are among those mysteries that readers of Tinkers will confront in original and profoundly satisfying ways.

Before I go any further, I want to emphasize that this is not my “review” of Harding’s novel. On many levels, I do not feel either worthy or qualified to criticize this book (or any other for that matter), but the most relevant reason for now is that, having only just finished my first reading of it, I honestly feel I have barely dipped my toe into the virtual lake of mysteries the novel has opened up within my mind. Tinkers invites and compels you to dive headlong into deep waters indeed. Undoubtedly, the fact that I am both a father and a son, and more specifically, the son of an octogenarian man who is ailing and near the end of his life, all contribute to the deep emotional resonance this novel had for me. But even if that were not the case, I find it hard to fathom that anyone who appreciates meditative and humanistic fiction would not be at the very least impressed, if not profoundly moved, by what Harding has accomplished here.

One of the most interesting and, for a total book nerd like me, exciting aspects of Tinkers is its unusual and intricate structure. I know from interviews I have heard with Harding that he was steeped in the work of the American transcendentalists (particularly Emerson and Thoreau) as well as theologians like Barth and Tillich while writing the book, but I have to wonder if he isn’t also deeply familiar with the great Confessions of St. Augustine as well. I am no expert on the latter classic, but I can’t forget its fascinating, extended meditations on time and memory – and this entire novel feels like it almost belongs if not on the same shelf, at least in the same library as those profound chapters.

The novel’s conceit is to give us the final hours of a man’s life – but we experience them both from the inside (that is, from inside his mind, we “hear” the man’s thoughts as he has them) and from the outside (we are with his family as they hold vigil over him and care for his needs as his life slowly expires). But the dying man’s thoughts are almost exclusively of his own father and his life, and so Harding gives us as a kind of parallel narrative the life story of the dying man’s father, in a different time and place. So we experience the bond between a father and son in a unique and, at times, almost painfully intimate way. For theirs was a relationship that never got to be completed, and the father’s absence throughout the majority of the dying man’s life has obviously made an impact he will carry literally to the grave (and maybe beyond?).

So there’s a kind of “wheels within wheels” structure at work here that is interesting and, because the “wheels” are made of the stuff of time and memory and family and heartache, poignant as well. There is plenty of emotionally complex material already to create an interesting novel. But Harding doesn’t leave it there. In the sections of the book in which we learning about the dying man’s father, we become vividly aware of the issues he had with HIS own father, an eccentric but loving Methodist minister. We see how the ripples emanate outward from one man’s life into another’s, and into another’s… the Bible says something about “the sins of the fathers” being passed down to their sons across multiple generations, but Harding makes sure that we understand that there are graces to be inherited as well through this tenuous but vital connection.

As if all of that weren’t thought-provoking enough, Harding also gives us lengthy passages (and this is an amazing feat of the imagination in itself) from a wholly fictitious treatise by a 19th-century horologist and minister about the inner workings of clocks. The central character (the dying man) repaired clocks as part of his life’s work, and we can assume that these passages are from a book he once owned. What particularly impressed me about this device is that by making this imagined author a minister, it gives Harding – who is clearly fascinated by the great philosophical and theological conundrums – a chance to speculate about the similarities between the mechanics of clock machinery and the inherent order of the universe, and muse about what the human inclination to measure time might tell us about our inner yearning for the Divine.

I don’t want to reveal too many more details, because if someone reading this post hasn’t yet discovered Harding’s exquisite book, I will be doing them a disservice if I do. I would truly hate to rob anyone of the memorable experience of reading Tinkers, and reveal the strange wonders they will encounter on nearly every page. I haven’t even gotten into the stark, poetic descriptions of New England’s fearsome beauty during the frozen winter months; the nightmarish clarity of Harding’s accounts of one character’s epileptic seizures (sometimes described by the epileptic himself, sometimes from those observing him!?!); the moving passages about married love and the compassion of those who serve the bedside needs of the dying. There is even a cameo appearance (of sorts) from a very famous American writer, during an amusing and dream-like diversion involving one of the main characters and a wizened old hermit living in mysterious seclusion, deep in the woods.

Tinkers is a book I won't be getting over any time soon. It has been lingering powerfully in my mind (and in deeper places, the heart perhaps) since I read the last line. I don’t think I’ve fully processed its impact on me, and I know I can’t say I fully grasp its meaning. I doubt very much, actually, that there is one “meaning.” The book is going to mean something very different for everyone who reads it – as I suppose is true of any book worth the sheets it’s printed on. But a book like this one, which attempts to plumb the depths of those mysteries we all grapple with every day as human beings, and which confront us with increasing urgency as we get closer to our own day of reckoning – a book like this becomes a very personal, subjective experience. It will no doubt reward, and even demand, subsequent readings. I can say this for sure: it is going to get a few from me. And I am grateful to Mr. Harding for using his abundant gifts of thought and expression to provide us all with such rich and thought-provoking material to “take and read.”

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Battle to the Death

This excerpt from the draft of Forever Voyaging, my book on Herman Melville, takes on the three-day epic battle that concludes the classic novel Moby-Dick. There's a lot of work yet to do on it, but here's an example of what I'm trying to do. I hope it is enjoyed.....

IT IS A DISSERVICE to those among us who many not have read Moby-Dick to lay out everything that occurs in those three days of combat. Although I do find it hard to imagine that someone would read the current book, the one you hold, without having experienced the wonder of the novel in question. However, I must allow for the possibility that this unorthodox reader exists, and thus proceed without revealing too much. After all, Melville has already told the story better than I can.

Nonetheless, in each of the three days that conclude Moby-Dick, something astonishing happens that must be experienced to be fully understood. And Melville, to his eternal credit, draws the reader into those experiences as skillfully as anyone ever has.

The first day begins the hunt without a trace of caution or hesitation. As soon as Moby Dick is seen spouting above the surface, an epic contest ensues.

Suddenly as he peered down and down into its depths, he profoundly saw a white living spot no bigger than a white weasel, with wonderful celerity uprising, and magnifying as it rose, till it turned, and then were plainly revealed two long crooked rows of white, glistening teeth, floating up from the undiscoverable bottom. It was Moby Dick’s open mouth and scrolled jaw … the glittering mouth yawned beneath the boat like an open-doored marble tomb.

With this amazing but terrifying image, Melville quickly establishes the tone for the entire hunt. It is unquestionably a fight to the death – someone will not survive the contest. Right from Day One, Ahab leads from the front, we notice, since he is himself standing in the small boat that Moby Dick is coming up under as depicted above. As soon as the White Whale was sighted, Ahab ordered the boats dropped, and assumed his place in the lead vessel, taking the fight straight to his enemy.

The second time I read Moby-Dick, I tried to picture myself in what amounts to little more than a rowboat alongside Captain Ahab, peering over the side, and seeing that huge white leviathan’s open jaws ascending straight out of the dark waters to drag me to my fate. I don’t know what I would have done, but it almost certainly would not have been what Ahab does in the novel by way of response. From this first direct encounter until the end of the third day, Ahab provides indisputable evidence of both his outright insanity and his extraordinary courage.

When Moby Dick finally emerges from below with his jaws gaping, he immediately brings them down across the middle of the skiff and cleaves the entire thing into two separate parts in one massive bite. But even while he is doing so, Ahab physically apprehends the whale’s lower jaw with his bare hands and attempts in vain to prevent the whale from cutting the vessel in two. Needless to say his efforts to protect the boat fail, and in the process Ahab loses the wooden leg that replaced the original limb he had lost to Moby Dick in the first place.

Ahab has proven his mettle right away, and the crew witnesses his fearlessness. But they also take note of his obsession, which, it is becoming increasingly clear, will certainly lead to their own violent deaths. Once again Starbuck – who may have thought of himself as the voice of the other men, or the voice of basic reason, or both – attempts to get Ahab to recognize the grave danger he is carelessly courting in his quest to defeat Moby Dick by identifying the cloven boat as an “omen.” Ahab dismisses this notion right away with disdain, and even a kind of machismo:

Omen? Omen? … if the gods think to speak outright to man, they will honorably speak outright; not shake their heads, and give an old wives’ darkling hint …. Ahab stands alone among the millions of the peopled earth; nor gods nor men his neighbors.

Starbuck must certainly understand with these words that his own battle, to expose to Ahab the fatal folly of his obsession, has been lost. Ahab forges on without any thought of reversal. Before the next morning dawns he has ordered the ship’s carpenter to fashion for him another wooden leg from the very planks of the boat Moby Dick has destroyed.

Moby Dick vanishes as the sun sets on the first day, but Ahab is sure the whale will not go far, and so the crew follows after him with the remaining boats. Sure enough, on the morning of the second day, he is seen breaking the surface in the near distance. Ahab immediately renews the fight, declaring, “Breach your last to the sun, Moby Dick. Thy hour and thy harpoon are at hand!” One has their doubts that Ahab has gotten a whole lot of sleep in the intervening night, but he seems to be drawing his maniacal strength from some nether, unfathomable source.

Then, on the second day but before they actually fall into combat again, Melville depicts a phenomenon that sailed right past me the first time I read the novel – or at least I had little memory of it. But the second time it struck me with full force how unbelievable this action alone must have been to observe. What happens is that Moby Dick, presumably in a show of force, draws near the Pequod and its boats while beneath the surface, and then he “breaches.”

Breaching, as described in the novel, is when the whale leaps “salmon-like to heaven” out of the water. Melville’s choice of language here is helpful, because most of us have probably seen still or moving images (if not in person) of that particular fish jumping up out of a river as the rapids rush downhill over rocks. The whole fish comes up out of the foam, and for a moment we are graced by the beauty and wonder of its muscular, shimmering form thrashing through the air in a manner that almost has the feel of a performance rather than of a raw display of nature. Then, in the next instant, the fish has dived back into the rapids and is gone on the rest of its journey.

The same leap is executed by Moby Dick on day two of this great hunt, right next to the Pequod and all of its men. What is so amazing and terrifying about this war-dance? The reader need only remember this: a male sperm whale averages about sixty feet in length and weighs between forty and sixty tons. Again, when you place yourself inside one of these small boats chasing after the whale, or standing on the deck of the Pequod, the full impact of this demonstration begins to dawn on you.

This is one of those cases where a classic work of literature, or work of art in general, pays a significant return to the reader (or consumer) who is willing to make an investment of imagination in the work. When people say that a great novel gives back to the reader what they put into it, the comment refers to moments like this one. You have to apply yourself in order to visualize the sheer astonishment of a massive white sperm whale, with its brow wrinkled and its form pincushioned with steel harpoons trailing blood-slickened hemp threads, leaping with unbridled force out of the great blue sea. But after you have done so, the image is seared into your mind forevermore.

If there was any need of a kind of turning point in my second reading of Moby-Dick’s final drama, this moment, and the onscreen visual it generated in my mind’s eye, was that occasion for me. Although I was all in with Moby-Dick before, for numerous reasons that I have been seeking to put into words in the last two chapters, from this point on I was utterly swept away by the sheer momentum of the duel being played out between Captain Ahab and the white whale. Before the second day has seen the red curtain descend upon it, Moby Dick has launched another offensive, again dashing its “broad forehead” against Ahab’s small boat, sending it “turning over and over” through the open air.

In a contest with these stakes, the crazed and God-bothered Captain Ahab (“Is it I, God, or who that lifts this arm?” he asks of no one in Chapter 132, “The Symphony”) understands clearly the critical nature of the third day. Indeed, on the evening of the second day of the hunt, Ahab prophesies with terrifying assuredness, “Two days he has floated – tomorrow will be the third. Aye, men, he’ll rise once more, – but only to spout his last.”

Here the reader may well congratulate himself or herself – after all this build-up, here they finally are, about to pay witness to this final end. And I can only say further that this last day of battle seems to play out exactly in the way that it must. Indeed, Melville crafts this ultimate clash in such a way that the reader coming into it for the first time – finally arriving at the actual moment on day three that decides once and for all who wins this duel, man or whale – understands and fully accepts, as soon as that moment is reached, that it was, is, and even always shall be, the only possible way for such a contest to conclude.

One gets the feeling from these chapters that Melville was a conduit for some greater, far more comprehensive human story, being inscribed through his calloused hands. This intangible sense one encounters while reading the novel is what really elevates Moby-Dick. To agree that this occurs in the novel, or to even stipulate its possibility, is to grasp that an artist in the correct moment can harness powers far beyond normal human capability. In my understanding, this is achieved only through the Grace of God. But I also believe a writer cannot arrive at a moment like this by accident, or with any ease whatsoever. He must labor towards it his entire life, from infancy. Thus, he who accomplishes such a thing earns it.

Again: here does Moby Dick himself, expressed in the stunning power of a gift with language manfully harnessed and directed, thrust himself into battle one last time, against Ahab, the Pequod, and its entire crew:

Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice were in his whole aspect, and spite of all that mortal man could do, the solid white buttress of his forehead smote the ship’s starboard bow, till men and timbers reeled.

Here, finally – following that crushing blow against himself, his men, and his ship – does Ahab rise up in his small boat with harpoon poised, stare straight into the very eye of his enemy, and give Moby Dick everything he can muster:

“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and curses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!”

I plan to return to these stirring final words of Melville’s legendary creation once more before this book is complete. But for now I hope I have made myself plain about the power of Moby-Dick – simply by providing samples of Melville’s astonishing words. This epic stand-off is a battle like no other inside a uniquely American masterpiece that can never be replicated or imitated.

Moby-Dick leaves a reader to breathlessly inquire of him or herself: when the real contest arrives for me, when my life reaches its most critical crucible, will I have the courage to stand up and greet it the way Captain Ahab does, come what might? Will I have the strength to “give up the spear?”

(c) 2011 by Jude Joseph Lovell

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Duke Altum's Best Films of the Year - 2010 (with one cheat)

Here are the best movies I saw this past year, along with one cheat (a TV show) because it truly deserves to be listed among any accounting of my favorite viewing experiences of 2010. In fact, if I had to choose the single most valuable viewing experience that I had this year, it would definitely be watching through the entire series of The Wire. Hands down.

But now, on to the list, which is written out here in no particular order:


Mother, directed by Bong-Joon Ho (2009)

What it’s about: A mother who lives alone with her mentally disabled adult son goes to great extreme lengths to defend his innocence when he is charged with the murder of a local teenage girl. The police take the path of least resistance by pinning the crime on him, as he was witnessed with the girl earlier in the evening – but his mother, whose relationship with her boy is complicated (to put it mildly), is fanatically determined to take justice into her own hands.

Why it made the list: Bong Joon-Ho (The Host, Memories of Murder) makes films of impeccable artistry and is a master of mixing moods – in most of his movies you will be horrified or tense in one scene, and then laughing at the slapstick-style comedy in the next. All of that applies here, but what really makes this one memorable is its portrayal of fierce, bordering on unhealthy, maternal love and loyalty, brought to life with gut-wrenching power in the superb and unsettling lead performance by the popular Korean TV actress Hye-Ja Kim. She owns every frame of this movie, including the brilliant and unforgettable bookend scenes. It’s probably my performance of the year (for the ones I’ve seen).

What surprised/stayed with me: The aforementioned ‘bookend’ – first and last – scenes of this movie, which I shouldn’t describe for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but are baffling, beautiful and boldly enigmatic all at the same time. Wide open to interpretation, but presented with Bong Joon-Ho’s inimitable technical skills and visual inventiveness.

Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik (2010)

What it’s about: A harsh, gripping thriller set in the rural Ozarks, in which a teenage girl is determined to find her missing father (deeply in debt and involved in dealing and cooking meth) and bring him to court in order to keep her family’s home from being confiscated. She must contend with both the local law, looking for her runaway Dad, and her even more menacing and insular family who will stop at nothing to keep his activities secret – even from a blood relative.

Why it made the list: For a relatively young and obscure director, it’s amazing how well made, atmospheric and tense this movie is from start to finish. Filmed on location using many local residents without formal acting training, this movie reeks of authenticity and sustains a slow-boiling sense of danger throughout. It also boasts superb acting, especially from relative unknown Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role and the magnificent character actor John Hawkes, who embodies intimidation and menace as her strung-out, dangerously volatile (and yet weirdly empathetic) uncle Teardrop.

What surprised/stayed with me: The dark beauty of the setting, combined with the unshakable sense of bad, bad things lurking just underneath the surface in every shot of this film. We’re not talking light comedy here, but if you appreciate natural cinematography and sustained atmosphere in a movie, and enjoy noir-type thrillers, add Winter’s Bone to your list as soon as you can.

Monsters, directed by Gareth Edwards (2010)

What it’s about: A satellite that was sent out by the U.S. to investigate possible life forms in a distant corner of space has crashed back to Earth, “infecting” a huge portion of Central America with large, tentacled aliens that no one knows quite how to handle. But that’s just the backdrop to a surprisingly intimate and realistic (given the sci-fi trappings, and marketing, of the film!?) love story between a young woman stranded in the infected zone, and the freelance photographer who has been hired by her wealthy father to find and bring her back home.

Why it made the list: It ain’t for the title, which is spectacularly misleading – although there are some impressive digital effects on display here and there, and a stunning climactic sequence involving two of the alien creatures communicating on some level with one another. What I admire most about this movie is its originality and the boldness of its (first-time!) director to flout convention and make what is in essence a quiet, meditative relationship movie with inventive science fiction elements thrown into the mix. It’s an unusual combination that some would find off-putting, but that I found fresh and interesting.

What surprised/stayed with me: The ending is beautiful to look at but incredibly enigmatic and open to various interpretations – the kind of ending you’re thinking and debating about for a long time afterwards, which I always find impressive in a film. Also, you have to give Gareth Edwards a lot of credit for not only directing, but also writing the story and creating all of the special effects on his own laptop – none of which he had ever done before. It’s a hugely impressive achievement for this DIY filmmaker.

Inglourious Basterds, directed by Quentin Tarantino (2009)

What it’s about: Basically, the assassination of Adolf Hitler as imagined by the sui generis, film-saturated mind of Quentin Tarantino. A group of Jewish-American soldiers, using Apache warrior techniques and led by a blood-crazed Tennessee redneck, go “hunting Nazis” in Germany, while Hitler’s personally assigned “Jew Hunter” SS officer pursues his own grisly mandate. Meanwhile, a young woman whose family was murdered by said SS officer concocts an ingenious revenge plot of her own, involving the movie theater she owns and operates.

Why it made the list: There’s a TON to admire about this film, not the least of which are its stunning cinematic flair, totally original combination of genres and plot elements (which could only come from one human being alive right now) and a superb performance from Christoph Waltz as the “Jew Hunter” Hans Landa (believe the hype – this guy is incredible from the moment he steps on screen). But what I love most about it is the uninhibited imaginative brio and love of cinema that permeates every single frame of this wild, exuberant, overstuffed film. Tarantino ain’t subtle (though his dialog and camera movements can be surprisingly sophisticated – the first scene is a graduate course in slowly building tension to an almost unbearable level), but his films are full of raucous energy and spilling over with invention – and in that regard, I found myself tipping my hat despite myself at his hilariously cheeky last line: “This might just be my masterpiece.” Sounds ridiculously arrogant, but when you see it in context, you can’t help but laugh… and, I have to say, marvel.

What surprised/stayed with me: The incredibly skillful filmmaking throughout (especially in key scenes, such as the justly famous beginning in the farmhouse or the “bar scene”) and the emotion of the girl Shosanna’s subplot, both of which can be easily overshadowed by the wild gunplay, cinematic verve and towering figure of Hans Landa. Also, Brad Pitt’s purposely cartoonish performance as Lt. Aldo Rayne, which drew fire from some critics but I found to be pitch-perfect in its absurd comedy and exaggeration.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird, directed by Kim Ji-woon (2008)

What it’s about: Take the plot of Sergio Leone’s classic The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and transplant it to Manchuria somewhere around the 1930’s (vaguely), and you’ve got Kim Ji-Woon’s rip-roaring take on spaghetti westerns. Involves Koreans, Chinese and Japanese goons all in a chase to find a lost treasure and eliminate those who might aspire to find it first.

Why it made the list: It seemed impossible for any movie I saw this year to be even more over-the-top, ambitious and visually insane than Tarantino’s, but this one might just be the one! Some of the action sequences in this movie are among the craziest (in a good way) I have ever seen, and how people and/or animals weren’t seriously maimed in the making I really have no idea. The camera literally swoops (at times) through scenes in this movie like a panicked bird, trying to find a way to safety amidst the utter and explosive chaos. In short, this is the movie to show to the most seasoned action movie fan you can think of, and exclaim, “See if you can find anything that tops this!!”

What surprised/stayed with me: Besides the jaw-dropping, “I can’t believe I just saw that” quality of virtually every action sequence in this film, what surprises is that many of the actors, especially those playing “The Bad” and “The Weird,” deliver memorable and hilariously over-the-top performances that really add to the movie. They look like they are having a blast, which is just another layer of fun heaped on to this thoroughly enjoyable, immensely entertaining “kimchee Western.”

Hunger, directed by Steve McQueen (2008)

What it’s about: The final days of the imprisonment of Bobby Sands and his fellow Irish patriots, including their infamous hunger strike, are depicted in this totally uncompromising, brutal and yet beautifully shot film made by the British visual artist Steve McQueen.

Why it made the list: I’ll say right off that this one is a really tough watch. It does not flinch – ever – in its depiction of human violence and cruelty, whether it be that of the British prison guards towards the Irish rebels they see as no better than vermin, or that of an Irish terrorist gunning down a British official in the middle of a flowered parlor in a nursing home. But if you can make it through the beatings and feces smearing of the first third, you should – because the second act, a long scene of dialog between Sands (a stunning Michael Fassbender) and his priest (Liam Cunningham, holding his own) shot all in one take, is an amazing tour de force of acting. And the last third, in which Sands slowly starves to death, is the visual equivalent of a dream-like trance, filmed with great beauty and almost no dialog at all. If you appreciate the craft of moviemaking, you will find plenty to admire in Hunger.

What surprised/stayed with me: Everyone who’s seen this comments on it, but it’s that second act – the long scene of dialog back and forth that feels like you’re watching a stage play. It’s a fascinating verbal sparring match between Sands and his priest about the morality of dying for a cause, and whether it will ultimately mean anything. It sounds boring when written about on paper but you are glued to the screen when it plays out. It’s a brilliant one-act play sandwiched between a searing prison drama and a visual poem about dying. Bring the popcorn!!

A Serious Man, directed by Joel & Ethan Coen (2009)

What it’s about: A modern retelling of the Job story (in a way), in which a mild-mannered Jewish physics professor and family man in 1960’s suburban Minnesota searches for meaning and significance in his life, while various personal calamities (his wife leaving him for another, more “Able man”; a student trying to bribe him; his brother living out of his family room) tempt him to despair and hopelessness.

Why it made the list: One of two Coen Brothers films that made the list, actually… I suppose it goes without saying that their films are always flawlessly made. Now whether you like the stories they tell is something else, but technically and artistically their movies are always fabulous. No exception here. For me this movie is a fascinating, and in some ways surprisingly personal, expression of some very deep and poignant philosophical theme… what makes a life valuable? What is the point of suffering? Is there any meaning to anything that happens to us, or are we just supposed to simply do our best with whatever comes our way? Yes, the main character suffers a lot and the ending is furiously enigmatic. But it’s also hilarious throughout – and you didn’t expect pat answers or tidy endings from the Coens, did you?

What surprised/stayed with me: This one’s easy for anyone who’s seen the movie – how about that opening scene? The way the Jewish folk tale (incredibly, one born of their own imaginations and not simply lifted from Yiddish lore!) perfectly presents and mirrors the themes of the film that follows it, and yet exists in a completely different time and context, is pure genius. Gives the entire film a metaphysical layer that you’re reminded of again in the final, baffling shot… these bookend scenes left me scratching my head for days.

House (Hausu), directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi (1977)

What it’s about: Wow… how to describe this one. A gaggle of schoolgirls go to visit one of their aunts, who lives alone in the country in a strange, old house. To say that the house is possessed, and that weird things ensue, would be an understatement of staggering proportions.

Why it made the list: Easy – it’s in a class entirely by itself. There is no way to describe or prepare anyone for what this movie throws at you, which is everything (and it goes without saying that none of it makes a shred of sense). A surreal experimental horror-comedy with splashes of Italian giallo, Sam Raimi-style effects and pure Japanese weirdness thrown into the stew, this movie is probably for die-hard genre film fans only… but if you enjoy crazy, slap-sticky horror and relish the challenge to watch something totally indescribable, you will get a real kick out of house. Pianos that eat their players and disembodied heads flying around on their own (oh, and biting characters on the arse) are just some of whacked-out visuals you will be treated to in the delightful family film House!

What surprised/stayed with me: The visual style, which is totally wild and a hell of a lot of fun. You’re not watching a movie like this to be intellectually challenged or deeply moved – you want to see what kind of weird imagery Obayashi is able to stir up. And on that score, trust me, the director of TV commercials delivers in truckloads. You’re not going to forget a lot of the images in this film, and it all looks glorious in saturated color and bizarre animation. Criterion restored it for a reason – has to be seen to be appreciated!

True Grit, directed by Joel & Ethan Coen (2010)

What it’s about: A 13-year-old girl hires a crusty, drink-sodden U.S. Marshall rumored to have “true grit” to help her hunt down the man who shot and killed her father in 19th-century Arkansas. Along the way they enlist the help of a young, brash “Texas Ranger” who has been tracking the same varmint (“ineffectually,” as our heroine points out) and get entangled with a ruthless band of thieves.

Why it made the list: The last film I saw on this list (chronologically) is also one of the best. The Coen Brothers bring their usual sure and detail-oriented directorial acumen to this faithful, pitch-perfect adaptation of the underappreciated Western thriller (with a deeply moral heart) by Charles Portis. The screenplay beautifully preserves the strange, entertaining mix of austerity and humor in Portis’ original language, and also manages to add moments of wit and physical comedy that make it feel like a Coens film. Part adventure, part revenge story and part coming of age tale, this exciting and heartfelt paean to the great Westerns of the past feels both nostalgic and wholly original at the same time. (It’s also superbly acted across the board, from large parts to small – but one can’t help but single out newcomer Hailee Steinfeld for more than holding her own among the likes of Bridges, Damon and Brolin.)

What surprised/stayed with me: One could say, as many critics unfairly have, that what surprises about this movie is that it has heart… but I’ve seen Fargo and O Brother Where Art Thou, and I already know they can bring a lot of feeling to their films (though when I see their occasional misfire like Burn After Reading, I can certainly appreciate the charge). What really surprised me in this movie was Matt Damon’s funny, refreshingly against-type performance. He brings a LOT of humor, and some poignant humanity, into a film that could have been pretty grim without it. Many people, myself included, wondered about how he would play in a movie like this, but I am happy to report that he elevates the film with his charm and ability to find the nuances of a character.

The Wire (entire series), created by David Simon (2002-2008)

What it’s about: The drug trade in the city of Baltimore, and how it affects every layer and substrata of the once-proud city’s broken and bedraggled institutions… from the street, to the ports, the schools, law enforcement, and the hallowed halls (and shady dealings) of City Hall.

Why it made the list: Man, I literally do not know how to praise this magnificent, superbly-written TV series. To start, I’ll just say it’s easily the best show and best writing I’ve ever seen on TV, by about a hundred miles. It’s got a HUGE ensemble cast and – I KNOW I’ve never been able to say this before – there is literally not one weak link in it, no matter how small the part. It’s no accident this series has spawned full-length courses at universities like Tufts and Harvard and been compared not to other TV shows, but to the novels of Dickens and Zola. It is intellectually stimulating, emotionally devastating and morally challenging. It will stay with you long after you’ve finished the final episode.

What surprised/stayed with me: What truly surprised me about The Wire is how far its characters, from so many diverse professions and backgrounds, got under my skin. Whether they’re “freelance” thieves and drug-lord killers or cops compromised by politics and the crushing demands of their low-paying jobs on their family lives, you really live with these characters and want to see them better themselves somehow… though the rock they are trying to move is of truly Sysiphusian proportions. Last word: FIND A WAY TO WATCH THIS SERIES NOW, if you haven’t!!

Honorable Mentions:

Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos; Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer; Simon Pegg/Jessica Hynes/Edgar Wright’s Spaced (TV series); Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity; Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale; Chan-wook Park’s Thirst; Apitchatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century; Lee Unkrich (Pixar)’s Toy Story 3; Christopher Nolan’s Inception