Being A Writer
Sometimes shuffle mode on my iPhone really comes through for me. I was having a pretty bad day yesterday, and it found a song that cheered me up.
I was having a bad day for a few different reasons. The biggest is something that's been going on for a while now. An older member of my family -- a person who I really care about and have always had a great relationship with -- has been stricken with a cruel health problem, and is suffering a lot.
This kind of ordeal puts other problems in a certain perspective, but not necessarily a perspective that's helpful. For instance, I've been looking forward to celebrating the 20th anniversary of this website on July 23rd, but I've also been feeling very frustrated about my progress as a writer. During those poisonous moments in which everything on Earth seems pointless, I can only see this blog as a symptom of my chronic need to be idiosyncratic at any cost, and thus as a bizarre monument to my own lifelong failure.
Well, okay. Failure's been in the air, and not just for me: failure to communicate, failure to reach, failure to deliver. Failure seems to have been trending lately, at least in my corner of the universe. An insane incident occurred yesterday involving one of my favorite people in the literary world, a person who must have been soaking in his own psychological poisons during the same moments that I was too. Everything turned out okay, but for a few moments the incident got frightening, and after it was over it all seemed like a sign of a sort of general despair among many of my writer friends, all of whom have moments in which we feel desperately starved for connection and validation. Another friend who was caught in this whirlwind summarized her takeaway from yesterday's public drama with this accurate tweet:
Two children's books I loved as a kid (and still love as an adult) have been republished in attractive new editions. Whether you've read these two books before or not, they are awesome and well worth checking out.
Funny thing, a trollish article titled "Against YA: Adults Should Be Embarrassed to Read Children's Books" by a person named Ruth Graham was recently published on Slate -- an obvious attempt at clickbait, and clearly the work of a bullying personality similar to that of the mean kid who kept throwing eucalyptus seeds at Mitch and Amy in Beverly Cleary's Mitch and Amy. (But that's another story.) Am I embarrassed to be remembering children's books? Hell no. These are two of the best books I've ever read.
I used to go to BookExpo in New York City every Spring. It was a grand event, a joyous social swirl of writers and publishers and editors and bloggers and critics. But, regretfully, I stopped going to BookExpo a couple of years ago. Some friends tell me the event has shrunk and that I'm not missing much. But I know I'm missing a lot whenever I get a chance to hang out with book people.
This year, I strangely found myself for the first time at DrupalCon, an amazing gathering of web development technology gurus, experts and dabblers who use the very powerful Drupal open source platform to build websites. I've been a Drupal developer since 2009, and I ported this blog from WordPress to Drupal in 2010. Drupal has been both my day job (currently, an exciting new federal government health information and community website launching in October) and my personal obsession. This is my first DrupalCon, my first chance to hang around with thousands of other developers who are as obsessed as I am.
I was nothing but psyched when I heard that postmodern novelist Colson Whitehead was writing a book about poker. Sure sounded like a great idea to me.
Whitehead is a clever, acidic satirist with a gift for inventive situations and touching emotional connections. Can he write? Absolutely -- novels like The Intuitionist and Apex Hides the Hurt have proven this. But can he write about poker? His new book The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death has some big problems (and, no, I'm not going to refer to the book as a "bad beat" or a "dead hand" so please stop expecting the obvious puns).
When I write about the damages caused by rampant militarism, I'm afraid some readers think I'm just making noise, just enjoying the sound of my own voice. I wish to assure everybody who reads my blog that I would never bother writing about a political problem if I didn't think the problem had a real and viable solution.
It's not really your fault if you've become so discouraged with political debate that you've decided antiwar activism is just another form of noise. Perhaps you've thought hard about the future of our planet and concluded that we're simply stuck with the problems that have plagued us so terribly in the past. Maybe you subscribe to the widespread belief that war and mass violence are so deeply enmeshed in basic human nature that we must continue to allow military masterminds to spend our money, waste our resources, kill strangers in our name. If so, I believe you're missing something important that's changing around you.
But how can I write about pacifism without sounding like a naive, hope-filled fool? And how can I bolster my arguments for pacifism when there are so many common misunderstandings about what pacifists believe? These are the problems that have been bugging me recently -- bugging me so much that I have thought seriously about killing this whole Philosophy Weekend series, and giving up on my mission to tackle the toughest ethical and practical questions that matter so much in the world today. I often feel so hopeless that I can't imagine going on.
Every once in a while I find myself wondering why I run a blog series called Philosophy Weekend that doesn't necessarily resemble anybody else's idea of what philosophy is, and maybe also doesn't necessarily resemble anyone's idea of what a weekend is.
I was in one of these questioning moods a few days ago when I watched an excellent film on late-night cable TV that gave me the insight I needed at the moment: Happy-Go-Lucky by Mike Leigh.
I love Mike Leigh's humble, amusing movies, which are almost always about ordinary British people dealing with ordinary problems. In Secrets and Lies, an adult woman finds the mother who gave her up for adoption. Nuts in May takes place in a nature camp where a boisterous partier sets up a tent next to two stern hippies. Vera Drake is about a woman who secretly performs illegal abortions. Leigh's masterwork Topsy-Turvy imagines the backstage action behind Gilbert and Sullivan's premiere of "The Mikado".
A Mike Leigh movie doesn't look or feel like anybody else's movie. The sets and performances aim to be completely natural, and his sensitive performers don't overact for the cameras but rather move and speak like real people do: polite, hesitant, often unsure of themselves. In a typical schlocky Hollywood movie, a married couple having an argument will often yell at the tops of their lungs, even when they're standing face-to-face only inches away from each other. In a Mike Leigh movie, a married couple having an argument looks like a real married couple having an argument. When a Mike Leigh film suddenly explodes into a sneaky emotional climax (as they tend to do) we are reminded of the communicative power of a quiet speaking voice.
Happy-Go-Lucky is a classic Mike Leigh setup. Poppy, a London schoolteacher played by Sally Hawkins, has a strange quirk: she's relentlessly cheerful, gabby, upbeat. Everywhere she goes, she compulsively cracks jokes, breaks rules, calls attention to herself. She knows that people find her energy level odd amd annoying, and she also knows that her manic style amounts to one of many life choices she's implicitly made that have not worked out particularly well.
She finds her opposite when she signs up for driving lessons with a tense driving instructor played by Eddie Marsan. He objects to her chattiness, asks her to wear proper footwear, makes racist remarks about other drivers. The confrontation that finally erupts between this dour man and this ebullient woman is the transformative event in this film, as Poppy learns the full impact of her behavior on others, and comes to realize what her quirky commitment to joyful living is grounded in.
One Hundred Years of Solitude must be Gabriel Garcia Marquez's best title, and it's the book that made him famous all over the world. But I somehow neglected to finish that epic novel, and was more attracted instead to Love in the Time of Cholera, a book so good it would probably have made the Colombian author famous again if he hadn't been already. I also enjoyed Marquez's The General in His Labyrinth, and I wonder if I specially favor these two novels because they both employ a vivid setting: Colombia's Magdalena River.
I'm a fool for riparian literature, perhaps because rivers hold such great spiritual significance (from the Jordan to the Ganges), or because they work so well as metaphor, whether the characters are lazily floating downstream like Huck Finn or tensely steaming up against the current like Marlow in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. My fascination with rivers makes Love in the Time of Cholera a natural for me, since this novel is basically a happy Heart of Darkness with senior sex. The ever patient Florentino Ariza has waited an entire lifetime to lie in the arms of his beloved Fermina Daza, and after many decades he finally outlasts her husband and scores with her on a boat heading up the mighty Magdalena. (Ariza's patience is his one great power, a character trait so distinct it earned him a seat in my hypothetical literary poker tournament a few years ago).
The river is a constant presence in this novel. Early in the story, Ariza escapes his heartbreak by travelling up the river, where the beauty that surrounds him is disturbed by visions of the cholera epidemic currently gripping the land:
Sometimes I find it hard to believe that my blog is almost twenty years old. Well, sometimes I also find it hard to believe that my youngest daughter is almost twenty years old. (They were born the same year, and they both grew up so fast.)
Literary Kicks will turn twenty on July 23, 2014. I have no idea how I'm going to celebrate, but I might keep it low key. For the 5th birthday in 1999, I threw a big party at the Bitter End nightclub in Greenwich Village. For the 10th birthday in 2004, I hosted an all-night online poetry jam with Caryn and Jamelah during which I remember falling asleep at least once. For the 20th, I might just stay home and feed the cats.
A literary biography ought to possess a voice and attitude that reflects and complements the literary voice and attitude of its subject. Leon Edel's life of Henry James is prim and probing, with an energy that gradually accumulates into stately magnificence. Gerald Nicosia's biography of Jack Kerouac is passionate, melancholy and fitful. This is how it should be, but this implicit rule must have been daunting to Adam Begley when he began writing Updike, the first comprehensive biography of the great fiction writer and critic John Updike, who died in 2009.
John Updike was, after all, one of the most confident and erudite prose stylists of his era, and an immensely likable writer. Fortunately, Adam Begley rises to the challenge in this enjoyable and perceptive biography, and while Begley doesn't attempt sentences of Updikian beauty and complexity, he does follow the master's lead in conjuring buoyant revelations from ordinary situations. Like a good Updike novel, this book captures the richness of one person's well-lived life.
I recently heard about a British Library project to reassemble and digitize a 17th century illustrated edition of the Ramayana, a classical Hindu epic. This sounds pretty cool, and it reminded me of a different edition of the Ramayana that I once owned myself.
This was just a cheap pocket paperback, a novelization of the great poem, published alongside a similar edition of the other great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. These two books, the life work of a young American translator named William Buck, were designed to be accessible and enjoyable versions of their extremely long and complex originals. Of course the great epic poems had to be condensed and simplified to fit into these forms, but the popular paperbacks provide a rich reading experience that must capture at least some of the significance of their gigantic counterparts.
William Buck's Mahabharata is the one I read all the way through and remember most vividly, because it's a colorful, wise and beautiful long tale that begins with the household altercation that resulted in an elephant head being placed on the body of a boy named Ganesha, the son of Shiva, who is noted (in the story that surrounds the story) as the scribe who is writing the text: