There are many reasons to dislike this pillar of our literary establishment, this modern giant. He has been the epitome of cozy, smug success since his career began in the early 60s. Just look at the smarmy smile on any of his 150 or so book jacket photos. This is a writer who embraces the culture of upper class suburbia, a writer who would have sneered at his peers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, a writer whose stories from the 1960s poked mean fun at hippies and civil rights activists (just read his excellent collection Too Far To Go to find some surprisingly cynical jabs at Martin Luther King, published when King was still alive and not yet a saint).
In fact, John Updike is so easy to hate that I can't even find an original way to do this; Nicholson Baker devoted an entire, hilarious book U and I to his own jealous obsession with this author.
There's only one problem: I love John Updike. I recently picked up one of his recent and less successful books, Gertrude and Claudius, which was remaindered for five bucks at Barnes and Noble. This is a modern retelling of the Hamlet legend, based on Shakespeare as well as earlier Danish sources, that focuses on the illicit love affair between Hamlet's mother and uncle. I picked it up because I'm a bit of a Hamlet buff, and maybe even because I liked the idea of reading an Updike failure, a late-career book that got no media attention and didn't sell.
Well, guess what? I love this damn book. It's up there with my favorite Updikes (among them the aforementioned Too Far to Go, Couples, Bech: A Book, and many more I'm embarrassed to admit I've read).
I'm not surprised the book didn't sell or get good reviews, because the book's ambition is to approach Shakespeare's sacred territory and compete on Shakespearean terms. The book is written in prose, not verse, and yet the sentences certainly do reach, quite self-consciously, for the gorgeous cadences of iambic rhythm. This is a grand move on the author's part, equivalent to a pat on his own back. But once you look past the nerviness of this self-comparison, what remains is a book that works, a story with a peculiar angle that strikes true in many ways.
Because John Updike is primarily an author of relationship stories, and because these relationships usually involve extra-marital affairs, it is no surprise that the author identifies deeply with Queen Gertrude as she runs from her husband into the arms of his treacherous brother. I am still in the middle of the book, so I can't comment on the plot as a whole. But, sentence by sentence, this book is a thrill.
Here's one sentence, describing the Queen: "Had her beauty a flaw, it was a small gap between her front teeth, as if too broad a smile had once pulled the space forever open." Lines like this make me realize it may be time for me to let go of my natural inclination to dislike this author, and accept the fact that he is one of the few novelists who can write as well as one of my lifelong literary role models. So, today I let go of the fight and admit what I've known all along: John Updike is the Henry James of our time, an absolute master of the private thought publicly expressed, and a writer who will grace the bookshelves of eternity.
What do you think about John Updike?
I think it's great that Bob Dylan's "Chronicles: Volume 1" was nominated for a National Book Award, listed by the New York Times as one of the top five books of 2004, and awarded many other honors. In fact, the old guy has written an amazingly breezy, funny and original book, and he deserves the recognition.
But I'm a little annoyed when I read reviews depicting this book as Dylan's long-awaited "true story". Sure, the book is billed as an autobiography, but Bob Dylan has been hiding behind masks longer than the four members of KISS put together, and I find it hard to believe he's dropped all of them now.
Deception, identity and disguise is absolutely central to the work of Bob Dylan, who has been in the course of his career an earnest protest singer, an amphetamine-popping rock star, a country-western refugee, a glitter-suited superstar, a born-again Christian, a sloppy has-been drunk, a mellowed-out jamster and a resurgent elder statesman of rock. It's exactly this neverending game of hide-and-seek that makes his work so compelling to his fans -- you never know where he'll jump out at you from next, always with the straightest of faces. But you can't become a completely different artist every three years and then suddenly drop the artifice and tell the truth. For the artist currently known as Bob Dylan, artifice is truer than truth, and this is how it must be.
I think they do. Scarred by commercialism and marred by cliche, the best authors of the 50's, 60's and 70's underground are still relevant. The literary experiments that beatnik authors were famous for -- loud poetry readings, collaborative works, marathon sessions of deranged composition -- are still considered avant-garde today. And the themes of the Cold War/Vietnam era -- modernity, ecology, violence, paranoia and war -- certainly resonate today.
Among the hundreds of writers and poets who could have been considered part of the Beat Generation or any of its offshoots, a tiny few are important enough to be considered timeless. I thought I'd spend today's column talking about new posthumous releases from two of them.
The popularity of Charles Bukowski today, a decade after his death, is a wonderful enigma. No market research in the world could have ever chosen him as an American idol. He was an ugly, middle-aged former post office employee when he began writing newspaper columns in the late 60's. His writing style was flat and artless, but he had boundless charm, and his columns always told the truth.
Many readers I respect, even including a fellow LitKicks staffer, hate this book with a passion. It probably doesn't help that the author became extremely rich by writing this interesting but aggravating and highly commercial book.
I understand why many people who take either literature or history seriously dislike this book. I know about the many historical flaws, such as the fact that the title itself is an error. The artist was known as Leonardo -- "Da" means from, Vinci was his home, and nobody called him "Da Vinci".
I am also aware that the prose style is dumbed down. There aren't many words here that haven't appeared on "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood". Brown pulls out cliches that most high school students are too good for -- I'm not sure if he actually describes somebody as "white as a ghost", but that's the kind of thing I'm talking about.
Still, I liked this book a lot. It grabbed my attention from page one, and it will grab anybody else's. The basic idea is that a Merovingian princess, and a distant relative of Jesus Christ, walks among us. A variety of bureaucrats, criminals, academics and mad monks scheme to either conceal or reveal this secret.
It's a tough premise to sell, but the book mainly works if you suspend your critical thinking and go along for the ride. Personally, I don't even care if a relative of Jesus walks among us. It wouldn't really affect my life much either way. As I turned these pages, I only cared who was going to get stabbed next, or what the latest secret code meant, or whether or not the hero was going to finally make out with Sophie Neveu.
Also, the book kept making me remember scenes from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail", which is a good thing for a book to do.
Matthew Pearl's "The Dante Club" is another recent hit book in the "Da Vinci Code" vein, although this novel has a more intellectual flavor. It's 1865 in Boston and Cambridge, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is presiding over a literary salon that includes James Russell Lowell and Oliver Wendell Holmes. They have all fallen in love with the works of Dante, the classic Italian poet, and are particularly obsessed by his "Inferno", a dark work that narrates the particulars of Hell in vivid detail.
The only problem is, somebody else in Boston is also apparently obsessed with Dante, because the scenes of torture and punishment described in the "Inferno" are being carried out all over town. On real people. The police are clueless, so "The Dante Club" sets out to catch the real killer.
Matthew Pearl is a better writer than Dan Brown. He knows how to make words dance, whereas Dan Brown's words seem to be doing the hokey-pokey at best. However, "The Dante Club" is distinctly weaker than "Da Vinci Code" in terms of plot and, yes, believability. As I turned the pages of "The Dante Club", I kept finding myself simply muttering ... "What?" Like, why don't the aged poets just talk to the police, for God's sake? And, how can a man be buried underground with his feet on fire and not feel somewhat uncomfortable about the fact that he is buried underground (the poor guy only seems to be upset about his feet being on fire)? Finally, why, why, why does Oliver Wendell Holmes have to leave the others and run upstairs in his underwear?
The book improves by the end. We discover why the author set the novel in 1865, because Boston is teeming with shell-shocked Civil War Veterans, and when the detective-poets realize their murderer is likely to be among these walking wounded, the book begins to recall the gritty realism of "The Alienist" by Caleb Carr or "The Tree of Life" by Hugh Nissenson.
Still, I don't think it's fair that "Da Vinci Code" gets criticized while this book gets a free ride. It's good brain food and it will teach you a few things about Dante. But, in the end, the plot doesn't pass inspection. Dan Brown obviously worked hard to think through the motivations of each of the characters in his book, so that "The Da Vinci Code" finally fits together like an intricate puzzle. As for Matthew Pearl, however, you just have to wonder what the hell kind of Scooby Doo meets Sherlock Holmes visits Encyclopedia Brown saturday morning cartoon he fell asleep in front of the morning he came up with his whole idea.
To sum it all up: I give "The Dante Code" four Scooby Snacks out of five, and "The Da Vinci Club" gets five. I'd like to know what you think about these books, if you've read either of them. If not, I'd like to hear what you think about the entire genre of imagined historical fiction.
A few weeks ago I wrote about Susan Sontag's essay "Illness as Metaphor". Sontag's concept was to analyze society's response to a disease the same way a literary critic might analyze society's response to a text. In the 80's, she wrote of AIDS as the tragically metaphorical illness of that age.
I wonder if autism might be the metaphor for our new millennium, or at least our new millennium's first decade.
Autism is a psychological syndrome characterized by emotional shutdown. Severely autistic people shy away from human contact and social enjoyment, often absorbing themselves instead in repetitive tasks or private fascinations. They tend to be quiet but needy, warm but remote. They are not mentally retarded, and can be extremely smart and talented -- in fact it's hard to tell if autistic people are even victims of a disease, or rather just "different". To use a grossly reductive simile (not a metaphor, just to clarify), an autistic person simply doesn't seem to be running the same operating system as everybody else.
Near the beginning of Gary Snyder's new Danger on Peaks, the poet asks, "Who wouldn't take the chance to climb a snowpeak and get the long view?" While the question is part of a piece about climbing Mt. St. Helens, it can be read as an invitation as well -- who wouldn't take the chance to follow him into Danger on Peaks and see the view? The long view -- mountains and loved ones (past and present) and the land -- offers glimpses of "beings living or not, beings or not,/ inside or outside of time", and is one well worth beholding.
But the book is more than just a pretty view. Informed by Snyder's Buddhist ethic, it gives us a way to look at what we see, and it's clear throughout the book -- from the peaks of upheaval to the valley between them -- that the cycle itself has something to teach us if we'll pay attention.
reVerse skillfully and surprisingly takes 14 tracks of poetry, song and every shade in between, then weaves them together into a CD that is an insightful representation of some of the best lyrical minds writing today. The strength in this collection is definitely the diversity. From Li-Young Lee's steady opening track "Echo and Shadow" (backed by guitar and a haunting vocal), to the jarring chaos of Marvin Tate's "Take Off Your Shoes and Run" and later the gospel-toned "Words Are My Salvation" by poet Sherrille Lamb, listeners will quickly and directly gain a sense of the range in today's poetry scene. reVerse juxtaposes seemingly unlikely collaborators in such a way that you feel they were meant to collide. Some tracks are purely spoken word, some poets read alongside music in a range of styles and there are a few straight up music tracks thrown in -- but then again, where does poetry end and music begin? Alexi Murdoch's "Song For You" is a real hidden gem on this CD, as is Lawrence Ferlinghetti's performance of "History of the Airplane" and Kent Foreman's rapid-fire "It's About Time". Lou Reed fans will want to be sure to catch his reading of "The City and the Sea" and the intense, quiet "What It Was" almost told as a secret by poet Mark Strand will make you want to be the unnamed subject of his performance. Each track exists strongly on its own merit, but it's the sum of all parts that is the power behind this work. Listening to the CD in one sitting is an accurate re-creation of styles and personalities you could find at any poetry reading -- that is if you're lucky enough to attend a reading by the likes I've mentioned above.
reVerse does what it sets out to do. It blurs the line even further between music and poetry while celebrating them both and much more.
KC Clarke, Executive Director of The Poetry Center of Chicago and creator of reVerse recently took some time to share his thoughts on poetry, performance and the birth of reVerse:
Caryn Thurman: I'm curious how you first became interested in poetry and who some of your first influences were. How did you decide to make poetry a major part of your life?
KC Clarke: I first became interested in poetry in grade school through my 4th grade teacher Mr. Sutherland. He had a poet visit my classroom. We were living in Detroit at the time. Soon afterwards, my mother gave me my first books of poetry: Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost. I remember reading these books and in most cases having no idea what was going on, but loving it anyway. I've never been successful in resisting the artistic impulse. All said, I think poetry decided that it would be a part of my life. This sounds corny, I know, but I've sworn off poetry on several occasions and even got away from it entirely for a six year stretch during the late 1990s. This lead to a big relapse -- taking on the job as The Poetry Center's executive director. I think major league baseball is partially responsible for my poetry inclinations, but that is different conversation all together.
Poetry is the one area where I can include all of my artistic whateverings -- a cross genre of mediums and contents reduced into words. For me, the structures of poetry make it one of the most wonderfully morphable of art forms.
CT: I know the reVerse project has been a long time in the making. What prompted you to take on such a big project? How did the idea form and how has it evolved since you first started on the collection to what it is today?
KC: I love music. I'm always looking for good new work, even if it is only new to me. For instance, my recent obsessions include Interpol, The Faint and Arcade Fire. In a few months I'll start digging around and find some other bands/artists. Anyway, I don't have many choices in recordings of poetry. There isn't that much out there that combines poetry and music with respect to the art form of poetry. Most of the stuff out there either self-indulgent or is poorly recorded and produced.
I've always loved the Sire Records "Just Say Yes" compilations from the late 1980s. I think well-produced compilations do a good job at introducing people to new artists and artistic concepts. "Just Say Yes" put Depeche Mode with Ice-T and The Throwing Muses. Brilliant. Lots of electronica artists have become known through compilations. The fringe of music and the art of poetry aren't all that different is some respects. So put the solutions/outcomes/influences of all these things together and you get reVerse.
CT: I read a bit about the selection of the musician on the reVerse website -- did the final roster of artists grow and evolve over time or did you have a strong idea of who and what you wanted to include all along? Did you request specific works from them or did they select pieces they felt most strongly about?
KC: We had a pretty good idea of what people would offer since we asked for demos in advance. We included as many different aesthetics as we could. After our first studio session, we listened to the tracks over and over and found stuff we hated or were bugged by and fixed or replaced those things in other sessions. Alexi Murdoch and Lou Reed were wonderful late additions. We fell in love with Murdoch's EP Four Songs. "Song for You" is Murdoch's favorite from that album. We thought the piece Reed offered went spookily well with Ferlinghetti's piece, though they are thematically unrelated. The fact that Reed was featured on Just Say Mao, Volume III of "Just Say Yes" in 1989 is too perfect, for me at least.
CT: I see on the site that you refer to the current CD as reVerse Volume 1 -- I assume that a Volume 2 is in the works? When can we expect the next reVerse?
KC: Yes! We are working on Volume 2. I hope it doesn't take three years. But since it might take us two years to get the word out about reVerse Volume 1, who knows. There are not a lot of channels by which to easily promote and distribute a weird hybrid thing like reVerse, so we are in this for the long haul.
CT: I see you have a strong web presence with reVerse and The Poetry Center -- how do you feel the online world and "blogosphere" is changing the face of literature? Or is it at all? For better or worse?
KC: reVerse is primarily available via the internet. reVerse is its own little shop thanks to the internet. The net is good for literature, especially poetry. The traditional poetry publishing biz has produced lots of good and lots of bad books. One can find good and bad poetry on the internet as well. OK, nothing new in that comparison. Traditional news and information sources don't seem to consider poetry newsworthy. Can you imagine something like Blackbook actually devoting a dedicated corner of its magazine to poetry? Well maybe, but it is not likely. But we don't have to rely on Blackbook for our poetry, do we? We have the "blogoshpere." Viva la blogosphere! The only thing that is a bit scary about the internet is anyone anywhere can sit in front of a monitor in their underwear eating a block of cheese simultaneously posting outrageo us claims of being a sort of savior of poetry or whatever. People believe what they read. Hopefully as time passes we'll be more able to sort fact from fiction and enjoy both as they should be.
CT: Many writers on LitKicks have notebooks and notebooks (or document files and document files) of their writing, but may have never attempted to read their work in public. What advice would you give to someone who needs a little pep talk in this situation?
KC: I believe these writers should host their own poetry readings. Doesn't matter where. Host readings on a rooftop or in a garage. This way these writers can read their work for each other. They can invite other poets to come read. I'm completely serious. Reading in public is kind of like writing. A poet has to read a lot of poetry and write a lot of poetry to produce good poetry. Most people have to read their own poetry to an audience to become good at giving a reading. A Sony minidisk recorder is a handy tool. A poet can record and listen to their own poetry over and over. I don't know a single poet who doesn't have an opinion about what they like and don't like about how other poets read their work. If poets subject themselves to their own readings via minidisk, they can at least practice until they enjoy hearing their own poems.
CT: Finally, LitKicks always wants to know -- What are you reading? Any recommendations?
KC: Poetry: Franz Wright, Anselm Hollo and the book of Ecclesiastes (again). Fiction: Jose Saramago. Film: foreign Chinese films. The Suzhou River is an amazing flick.
(Thanks to KC Clarke for giving me a peek inside the creative energy of reVerse.)
reVerse Volume 1 is available through the reVerse website, where you can read more about the project, the artists involved and listen to an audio collage of the entire CD and individual track snippets.
What can you expect from this book? Take a look at the Prologue:
its about a way of life that does not exist anymore,
it's a travel book
it's a collection of snapshots
it's a tribute to a life of freedom
do not expect any consistency
for there is none...
There is no consistency, yet Barry is always Barry, as in this short excerpt from The Electric Fan:
I assembled it
turned it on...
never had it so good...
a beer is opened...
what more could I want...
sitting here naked...
against my body...
Senses predominate in Barry' work. The title poem No Footsteps Left Behind walks us through a collage of locations and impressions. Take this little moment for example:
in my direction
from my head,
With barely time for an exhale, we read on:
and so go the travels of Barry Fitton. A large portion of the book is dedicated to erotica - a specialty of the poet. Images ripple:
Seed pods seen inside while high
trip of fingers
to the furthest limits of the thigh
wafts of sticky fluid
and cypress resin
from peachy valley flow
of megalithic rock
to white horses
through my bed
In fact, read all of the "Erotica" section. You will savour every moment.
Barry takes us on the road with "Have Poems Will Travel". In Pile Drivers, he combines eroticism with sounds of Amsterdam life:
to hear the
that is the sound
It rains here
just like home
Thud, thud, thud
I walk the streets
with wet earth
Thud, thud, thud
sinking their shafts
from morning till night
Thud, thud, thud
deeper and deeper
into the ground
Thud, thud, thud
to the sound
Thud, thud, thud
part of my breakfast
part of me
part of the city
Thud, thud, thud
cum at last
to its final
The section called "Snapshots" deals with sketches of the dead and the living, from Ginsberg to Ted Joans. Look at this from
in the hands
on a terrace
for the next
"Help I don't Want to Live Here Anymore" is an entire section devoted to the voice of outrage, high volume aimed pointblank. In Fear, he asks the big names (Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed) what they were doing while the earth was rumbling in disaster.
In first person specific, he takes on another role.
just to show
I love you
mean any harm
piece of skin
in my fist
just you be
a good girl
do the laundry
you're very good
do it right
The momentum builds as we get into September 11 and a series on war. War is written as a chorus for a number of voices; Wargasm watches in intimate horror as a soldier plunges into the enemy in wartime sexuality.
To wrap the book, Barry gives us an "Epilogue", leading us from political incredulity to innocence; from Who Put the 'great' in Great Britain to a translated piece written by a 7-year old Dutch girl.
A wild run through issues and senses, complete with illustrations and photographs, I Left No Footsteps Behind Me is an energizing journey over rock and beat, in outrage and ecstasy.
Pick up a copy and enjoy it.
The story begins way up in the North Woods of Minnesota. Minn is the name of one baby turtle which hatches from a group of turtle eggs. All the baby turtles scurry for safety as a crow swoops down, looking to make a meal of them. Just then, a hunter fires a rifle at the crow. The bullet nicks the crow?s tail feathers and cuts off Minn's left rear leg. The crow flies away, scared by the rifle. The baby turtles, including the injured Minn, instinctively run from their sandy nest, plop into the water, and hide themselves by digging down into the silt of the river bottom.
Minn recovers from the wound and begins an amazing twenty-five year adventure which takes her down the entire length of the Mississippi river through several states, past river towns and cities, struggling over and under dams, captured on boats for a time, witnessing floods, encountering both humans and animals which are sometimes friendly and sometimes dangerous, laying eggs along the way, until at last she reaches the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf being too salty, Minn settles nearby in a New Orleans bayou with the help of some friendly fishermen.
The story ends with a message, or moral. Over the years, as humans were striving for wealth and possessions, the power of the river remained constant and just barely tamed by man?s technology. The riverbed where Minn now lives is covered with coins, gold treasures, rubies, diamonds, and emeralds, all from sunken ships of past pirates, businessmen, and riverboat gamblers. Did these riches mean anything to Minn the turtle? Holling writes:
Thus Minn lived on a glittering heap ... of what? Rich jewels, once more, were merely stones; and one of the earth's heaviest elements, melted neatly into golden wafers of equal weight ... was returned again to the care of earth and water. For Minn, her doorstep of so-called treasure was only a hardness, like water-worn pebbles??
Holling Clancy Holling wrote and illustrated several children?s books which have been used often by teachers to help kids learn about geography, history, zoology, and and anthropology. These books include Paddle-to-the-Sea (1941), Tree in the Trail (1942), Seabird (1948), Minn of the Mississippi (1951), and Pagoo (1957). He did a lot of research to make sure his books were accurate. Sometimes his wife, Lucille, helped with the illustrations.
Holling was born in Michigan on August 2, 1900. He graduated from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago in 1923 and became a member of the zoology department at the Chicago Museum of Natural History from 1923 to 1926. He and Lucille Webster were married in 1925. Before becoming a full-time writer, Holling also worked as a teacher for New York University, a freelance designer, an advertising artist, and an illustrator for other people?s books. Mr. Holling died on September 7, 1973.
I would like to conclude with another quote from the book. This is the part where Minn the turtle passes through New Orleans, much of which is below sea level. I really like how Holling describes it:
?New Orleans is a cooking pan, a laughing face ? and a rhythm. A soft humming runs down its levees like rain-trickles of sound. It comes from houses, mansions, shops and skyscrapers; from dark alleys and day-bright boulevards; from people working and people at play; from feet hissing on dance floors, from hands beating, from singing mouths; and the rhythm is cradled in crooning strings, a moaning of the trumpets, drums sobbing ... And some of the rhythm has jungle in it; it tells of other rivers, crocodiles, long cats and shadows of elephants?And as Minn went by, drums talked this New Orleans rhythm into the river night ...?
Minn of the Mississippi was one of my favorite books as a child, and still is.
The Marquis de Sade, or Comte Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade was born on June 2, 1740 in Paris, France. His work was banned for many years but had an influence on many modern works and Surrealist art. His real life was as terrible and sadistic as the lives he wrote about. He was imprisoned many times for gross sexual acts, one time for masturbating with crucifixes whilst screaming obscenities and for whipping and raping a canoness.
120 Days Of Sodom is a story of four libertines who imprison a selection of whores, young girls and boys and their own wives and perform hideous sexual acts on them. (The word sadism comes from de Sade's name.) The book is divided into day-by-day chapters, each day bringing more grotesque crimes, spurred on by the stories of an old prostitute. The Marquis wrote this book in his last few years of life in a mental asylum on a 45 foot scroll that was carefully hidden inside the tube of a bedpost and was not rediscovered until 1904. Although the book gave me a sick feeling in my stomach and brought the taste of bile into my throat, I could not be torn away from it, my curiosity overcame my disgust and even at times overcame my feelings of contempt for the author. But that is another thing, for even though it is hateful and extreme, one feels one must fight all these feelings and pursue this original work to the end. If you can't read de Sade to the end, you lose. Though, somehow, even if you do read de Sade to the end, you still lose.
Amazingly, de Sade has such a philosophical view of these libertines that all questions of morality and the corruptness of religion are challenging and sometimes have a real truth. Despite the usually monotonous dialogue, the constant depictions of "frigging" and the gratuitous language, one must be stronger than the author, reading until the ending, fighting his 'low' art and emerge feeling more pure and unaffected than before, with a just, analytical viewpoint.
Is de Sade really the anti-Christ? I suggest you pick up one his books and experience the constant flux of emotions it brings and make up your own opinion. "Plaisir a tout prix ": pleasure at any price.