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516PPi-kpBLOne of my writing teachers said that readers of fiction secretly like to read about process, any kind of process — the process of cross-examining a witness or landing a plane or making cupcakes. When a process is well-described, with expertise, and an integral role in the story, readers love it, because they feel they are learning something along the way.

Butcher’s Crossing puts this idea to the test with big swathes of the book dedicated to process — but what a heart-rending and utterly American process it is, of the destruction of the great buffalo herds. The novel describes in meticulous detail the processes of boundless slaughter and skinning and sale, but also of how to keep oxen moving when they are dying of thirst, and of how to survive a winter when snowbound in the high country of the Rockies. (Another way of putting this is, as the Guardian says, “this book very nicely fits into the contemporary vogue for survival-manual entertainment as exemplified by films such as Gravity and All Is Lost.”)

The writing flows clear and elegant:

Without waiting for a reply, he turned again and walked toward the spring that trickled down some seventy-five yards beyond their camp. At the spring he removed his shirt; the blood from the buffalo was beginning to stiffen on his undershirt. As quickly as he could, he removed the rest of his clothing and stood in the late afternoon shadow, shivering in the cool air. From his chest to below his navel was the brownish red stain of buffalo blood; and in removing his clothing, his arms and hands had brushed against other parts of his body so that they was blotched with stains hued from a pale vermilion to a deep brownish crimson. He thrust his hands into the icy pool formed by the spring. The cold water clotted the blood, and for a moment he feared thathe could not remove it from his skin. Then it floated away in solid tendrils…

Another quote:

The horse was reluctant to go in; it advanced a few steps into the graveled bed of a shallow eddy and halted, lifting its feet, one by one, and shaking them delicately just above the surface. Miller patted the animal on its shoulder, and ran his fingers through its mane, leaning forward to speak soothingly in its ear. The horse went forward; the water flowed and parted whitely around its fetlocks, and as it advanced the water rose upward, until it flowed around the shanks and then around the knees. Miller led the horse in a zigzag path across the river; when it slipped on the smooth underwater rocks, Miller let it stand still for a moment and soothed it with small pats, speaking softly. In the middle of the river, the water rose above Miller’s stirruped feet and submerged the belly of the horse, parting on its shoulder and though. Very slowly, Miller zigzagged to shallower water; in a few minutes, he was across the river and on dry land. He waved, and the pushed his horse back into the water, zigzagging again so that the lines of his return intersected the lines of his going.

The novel is also a coming of age story for a young Easterner, Will Andrews, who has traveled west to find himself and his place in the world. He falls in with a crew of marvelous characters, especially the hunter Miller — we watch, horrified, as Miller obsessively works to destroy the creatures that form the core of the world that he loves. It is a great novel, a national tragedy of the commons dramatized as individual catastrophe.

Butcher’s Crossing was published in 1960. The author, John Williams, is probably best known for his novel Stoner. (Which isn’t about what you think it’s about if all you know is the title. It is the story of an academic, William Stoner and his life of quiet desperation — not a promising premise for a novel, but so beautifully wrought that writers have been recommending to one another for years, and it became a surprise best seller in Europe last year. I liked Stoner, but I liked Butcher’s Crossing even more.) Williams’s novel Augustus won the 1973 National Book Award.

Things it is like:

The NYRB edition of Butcher’s Crossing includes an introduction by Michelle Latiolais that describes Butcher’s Crossing as one of a trio of great demythologizing Westerns, alongside Blood Meridian and Warlock. (Whether Butcher’s Crossing is properly considered a “Western” when it doesn’t include cowboys or shootouts is a debate left to the reader.) All three are great books.

Warlock

Things it is not like:

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Fun fact:

Butcher’s Crossing describes how the large-scale slaughter and sale of buffalo hides was driven by an Eastern fad for buffalo robes. One character comments, “Why they wanted them in the first place, I don’t know; you never can really get the stink out of them.”

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Goodnight room

Goodnight moon

Good night rangy slatribbed cattle with horns that grew agoggle

Goodnight light

And the red waters hacking aimlessly at the dead

Goodnight bears, and lions turned loose in pits to fight wild bulls to the death

Goodnight chairs, and the tables with the fresh splinters blown out of the wood and the mud walls pocked everywhere by the big conical bullets

Goodnight kittens

And goodnight mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue

Goodnight clocks

And goodnight socks

Goodnight little house where women inside were wailing and the little hearsecart stood at the door

And goodnight mouse

Goodnight comb

And goodnight brush

Goodnight nobody to take him to raise

Goodnight mush

And goodnight to the old lady, that is what I said. Goat

whispering “hush”

Goodnight stars and quartermoons and other insignia of a provenance unknown

Goodnight air

Goodnight noise, must have caught the idiot’s attention for he turned his dead black eyes upon it

(With apologies to Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Wise Brown.)

(Special thanks to Caille Millner for suggesting it.)

Kind One, Laird Hunt’s most recent novel, has received gaudy reviews from many quarters (e.g., “Profoundly imaginative, strikingly original, deeply moving.” Kirkus, starred review; “Laird Hunt’s Kind One is a mesmerizing novel of sin and expiation that plumbs the depths of human depravity and despair, yet hints at the possibility of redemption . . . [O]ne that will resonate long after you turn its last page.”Minneapolis Star Tribune), and it was a Pen/Faulkner finalist and won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. I admired it greatly myself. Kind One deftly interweaves multiple time periods and points of view, but it all revolves around the story of Ginny, a white woman, who marries a cruel slave master. When he dies, the roles of master and slave become distorted, with consequences that reverberate long afterward.

Laird Hunt is the author of six books, including a short story collection and five novels. He teaches creative writing at the University of Denver.

The interview below is three questions long (+1, in this case), and each question is intended to be answerable with a photograph or other image. The photos and video (including the video of a video of a film) below are by Laird Hunt, and all rights are held by him. Laird told me, “I’ve been snapping photos with a little more attentiveness for a few years now. Some with a digital camera and some with a pinhole. I just got a holga plastic lens camera too although 120 film is expensive to buy and get developed!”

Nick: Is there an image you had in mind when you started Kind One?

Laird:

Doorway 1

Doorway 2

Doorway 3

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(Doorless doorways, windowless windows, dark beyond.)

Nick: The writing throughout the book is beautiful, but I was  particularly struck by the voice of Ginny — the poetry of her language, and also the peculiarities of what she choses to tell and what she choses to elide. Is there an image that captures something of your idea of her character and how she thinks and writes?

Laird:

Laird Reflect Footage

Stalker Footage

(She is coming closer, ever closer, then far again.)

Nick: It seems to me that one of the things Kind One is about is the way that certain events can carry forward in place and character through time. This theme brings to the book a ghostly quality and, often, an unsettling feeling. Any images that you associate with this aspect of the book?

Laird:

Tree

Barn

Cemetery

(Dead tree, wall of light, Indiana cemetery haunted by itself.)

Nick: And I’d like to add a bonus imagistic question: I love the handful of black and white photographs that are included toward the end of the book. They reminded me of W.G. Sebald, of course, but also Wright Morris’s The Home Place. Where did the photos come from?

Laird:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

(Sharan SQ-35 Pinhole on 35mm.)

See also our previous visual interview: Antoine Wilson and Panorama City.

Follow Laird Hunt on Twitter.

Follow me on Twitter.

(Cross-posted.)

checkpoint charlie berlin 1996

I took the photo above in 1996 in Berlin. The location is Checkpoint Charlie, the most famous of the guardhouses that monitored crossings between East and West Berlin. The sign in the foreground was a warning that stood in front of the checkpoint. In 1996, Checkpoint Charlie was slated for demolition so that the site could be redeveloped. Artist John Powers obtained permission to place a large, gold-painted replica of the Statue of Liberty on top of the checkpoint and leave it there for a few months before it would be scraped. He named the piece Checkpoint Liberty.

The Berlin Wall had come down seven years earlier, and now only a couple of short sections of wall remained standing. Half of Berlin had been turned into a vast, extraordinary construction project; looking east, construction cranes towered everywhere across the horizon. A friend told me, “It feels like I’ll go to sleep, and in the morning I’ll come out and find that all the streets around me have been rearranged overnight.”

Below are a couple more photos I took during that visit.

building

brandenberg gate 1996

silence

Christian missionaries to 17th century Japan moved in that gray area between bravery and foolhardiness. Early efforts at conversion in Japan had been remarkably successful, leading to colleges, seminaries, hospitals, churches, and a Christian community of about 300,000 people. But by the 17th century, the rulers of Japan had turned against the new religion. The European missionaries were ordered out, many Christians were martyred, and other were tortured until they apostatized.

This is the scene that Endo explores in Silence, published in 1966.

Father Rodrigues, the protagonist of Endo’s novel, is a Portuguese Jesuit who sneaks into Japan, to service the underground Christian community, and to seek news of another Jesuit, Ferreira, who is rumored to have renounced his faith under torture. Rodrigues knew Ferriera as a mentor and cannot believe that the rumors are true.

The tools of fear and torture that the authorities deploy against the Christians are terrible and relentless, and things do not go well for Rodrigues. I read with a sunken heart and the feeling that I could see where things were going while the net closed around Rodrigues and the authorities took him into their power. I did not enjoy this dismal predictability, and I found the sketch of Rodrigues’ character to be thin. He wavers between hopefulness and despair in a believable way, and his increasing despair at God’s silence in the face of tragedy is credible enough, but beyond this there isn’t much to give the man shape.

And yet…I found all of that to be redeemed in the last quarter of the book. Things go much as I would have expected — there is no escape for Rodrigues — and yet the shape of the final dilemma and resolution surprised me. Christ finally breaks the silence to Rodrigues, and in a way that turns out to be worse than the silence. And change that is wrought in Rodrigues’ character is terrible and magnificent.

Things it is like: One of those salsas that don’t taste like much at first, and then punch you in the face. The questions that Silence examines around the nature of God’s presence or absence that are also explored in Barrabas, by Par Lagerkvist, which I wrote about here. The subject of Catholic missionaries in a hostile land is also the core of The Voyage of the Short Serpent, by Bernard du Boucheron (which I also wrote about), although Endo’s feel for and handling of the subject is much more intimate.

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Things it is not like: A lollipop. The potential apostasy of Christian children due to the occult conditioning of Pokemon.

PIKACHU-pikachu-29274386-861-927

Antoine Wilson’s recent novel Panorama City earned terrific reviews from the New York Times (“A bracingly humane story whose narrator’s wisdom and forbearance make you see the world afresh”), Vanity FairLA Review of Books, and lots of other places. Panorama City is narrated by a young man, Oppen Porter, into a series of cassette tapes as he lies in a hospital bed, where he believes he will soon die. Into the tapes he speaks to his unborn child, and he tells of his travels in Panorama City (a neighborhood of Los Angeles) and his quest to become a “man of the world.” It’s a wonderful book.

Wilson is also a gifted photographer, with a book of photographs to his credit (The Slow Paparazzo, Ice Plant Press), which made him the perfect writer to ask to try an experiment I’m calling (until I think of a better name) the Imagistic Interviews.

The interview is three questions long, and each question is intended to be answerable with a photograph or other image, and a brief explanation. Rights to all images below belong to Antoine Wilson.

Nick: Panorama City is a book of many delights, but I felt that the most delightful delight was the voice of Oppen Porter. The voice arises partly from the peculiar nature of Oppen’s mind, his openness, his logic, and his curiosity, as well as the fact that he’s speaking to his unborn child. It’s genuinely unique and original, and I wondered if there is an image that captures your idea of that voice?

Antoine:

Image

A couple of years into writing the book, my father died. My aunt (not-Liz-like) posted this image on his memorial page. It’s c. 1930, probably Hull, Quebec. My father and his father, looking an awful lot like myself and my son. The moment I saw it, it unlocked a whole lot of emotion inside me, vis-a-vis my father. I had never truly imagined him possessing the innocence of a child. This image ended up becoming an enormous inspiration for the grandfather-father-son dynamic in the book. Never before had I felt so much like a link in the human chain.

Nick: Is there a picture that captures your vision of the curious quest that Oppen sets himself, to become “a man of the world”?

Antoine:

Image

This image encapsulates for me the sort of vision Oppen has of himself when he sets out from Madera for the wide world of Panorama City. He’s a puzzle piece in search of his puzzle.

Nick: Panorama City is an actual place. It is the place where Oppen goes to learn to be a “man of the world,” his words. You have to give us a picture of the Panorama City of Panorama City.

Antoine:

Image

I love the way the reflection of the sun off the Merc’s wheel creates an old-school nimbus you’d expect to find above Jesus’ head in a painting. I call it a rimbus. To me, this image resides at the intersection of the sacred and profane–exactly where you’ll find the Panorama City of PANORAMA CITY.

Nick: (Btw, Antoine’s Twitter feed is one of the  one of the cleverest and funniest around. If you’re over there, check it out.)

(Cross-posted.)

productimage-picture-the-long-ships-89

The epic adventures of a bold but hypochondriac Viking across the length and breadth of 11th century Europe in a tale written with great verve, spirit, and humor — if that sounds like a good book to you (and if it doesn’t, what the hell is wrong with you?), then The Long Ships should be on your list of must-reads. Written in the 1940s by Frans Bengtsson, a Swede, it has been revived in a New York Review of Books edition. To sell the book to potential readers, it would be hard to beat the NYRB edition’s short introductory essay by Michael Chabon. You should go read it here. I will only add that one of the joys of this book is its immersion in the particular prejudices and logic of the Viking mind.  The characters hold an idiosyncratic and adaptable sense of honor, and they are all obsessed with luck. They discuss and analyze many varieties and gradations of luck, and they judge the various religions competing in Europe in terms of the luck that that they bring. The result is both high social commentary and hilarious, and if you pick up this book I am sure that it will also bring you only good luck.

Things it is like: The Odyssey, Don Quixote (Book Two; w/r/t Don Quixote, my advice, skip Book One), and the Up Helly Aa Festival.

up-helly-aa-festival-2009-1-27-17-3-20

Things it is not like: The Very Virile Viking. (Admittedly, I haven’t read this book. I am judging it by its cover.) And this guy and his cat.

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Vikings love cats

Bonus fact: There’s little-to-no evidence that actual Vikings wore horned helmets.

And while you’re reading about Vikings, it’s interesting to compare The Long Ships with The Voyage of the Short Serpent, which I wrote about here.

This is the first of what I hope will be an occasional series of short interviews with authors with new books out that are worth your attention.

Jeremy Jackson has written three books of fiction; two young adult novels under the pseudonum Alex Bradley; and a pair of cookbooks, one of which, The Cornbread Book, was a finalist for the James Beard Award. He attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (graduating in 1997; I met him in Iowa City when I arrived there a couple of years later).

I Will Not Leave You Comfortless is Jackson’s first memoir. “The eleventh year of life brings Jeremy Jackson his first love, the loss of his grandmother, and his sister’s departure for collegeseemingly ordinary events that erode his innocence in a way that will never be fully repaired. With storytelling informed by a profound sense of place and an emotional memory startlingly vivid, readers young and old will be transported and transformed by this coming-of-age tale.”

Interview!

Q1. The level of detail in this book is extraordinary, and it creates a deep sense of a very particular time and place. The reader can see that this isn’t just a few memories that you dashed off; you researched this book. It includes any number of quotes from family letters, notes, and journals. How did you go about that research process, and what did it feel like to research your own life?

JJ: First off, thanks for asking these great questions, Nick.
The amount of documentation that my parents have kept from the time period is, well, somewhat preposterous. In addition journals and letters, they kept meticulously labelled and dated photographs, the family calendars that hung on our bulletin board (you know, the calendar with all our dentist appointments and PTA meetings on it), my school papers, cancelled checks, hand-drawn maps of our garden from each year, records of what my parents gave us for Christmas each year, and so on and so forth. I also interviewed my parents at length, and they were tremendous resources.
So, yes, it was a bit odd to be researching my own life, but it was also fascinating, because I discovered things I wouldn’t have remembered on my own, and I also discovered “intersections” between my ten-year-old-boy life and the lives of my other family members. For instance, the night I went on a raccoon hunt with my fellow Cub Scouts turned out to also be the night my grandmother had so much pain from her yet-undiagnosed disease that she got out of bed very early. My friend Craig and I stayed up super-late at the post-coon-hunt sleepover, so probably my grandmother and I overlapped—me up late, she up early. Additionally, my mother and eldest sister had a big fight that night and my sister also got up very early the next morning to drive an hour to go take the SAT test. So I was able to write this big multiple-POV chapter about this night, thanks to the sources I had. I wasn’t guessing or speculating about things based on memories, I had documentation. If this book were an academic book, it would have five or ten footnotes on many pages.

Q2. Was there a particular moment when you knew you needed to write this book?

JJ: In 2003, my mom emailed me a transcript of about three decades of our family calendars; this got me thinking about 1983 and 1984 and how our family changed that year. I started writing, exploring that year. But I had no experience in writing memoir, so I didn’t really know what the heck I was doing, so I took the chapters I’d written (which are indeed the first three chapters of the book) and showed them to Frank Conroy, the late director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, because he’d been an important teacher for me, a fan of mine, and because he’d written a famous childhood memoir of his own.
I asked Frank, What is this I’ve written? Where is it going?
He said, It is what it is, it’s going where it’s going, and you have to write this book.
I took that as a commandment.

Q3. You are a successful novelist and, now, a memoirist — you must know the strengths and weaknesses of each genre very well. If you locked fiction and memoir together in a cage in your mind and made them fight, which one would win?

JJ: It’s a draw! Boring, but true. Though perhaps the prevailing view is that memoir has been ascendant in the past couple of decades and fiction is in a bit of a holding pattern, I don’t see that either genre has any objective advantage. It’s a bit of a muddle anyway: memoir can contain a lot of fiction, and fiction can contain a lot of fact.
I personally like to read fiction more than memoir, and I also happen to think that there are many more “great” works of fiction in the world than “great” works of memoir. Or is this just me? I can easily name twenty amazing novels from the past hundred years, but I’m hard pressed to name five amazing memoirs….

Theory: Writing is a device for making a person appear smarter than he or she usually is.

Substantiation: We know from experience that smartness is not a constant quality. Sometimes we are smarter than we usually are, as when a sudden insight arrives, or a burst of creativity, or a moment of sustained focus. These smarter than usual moments can occur at any time.

On the other hand, even the smartest person is sometimes less smart than usual.

So, smartness varies over time. If we graph smartness vs. time, it might look like this.

Ideally, we would like to use only the peaks of the graph, when we are smarter than usual.

Fortunately, writing allows us to do that. It does so through two processes: (1) if we can immediately recognize that a thought is less smart than usual, we discard the thought and don’t write it down, and (2) if we do write down something that’s less smart than usual, the processes of revision, rewriting, and editing allow us to trim away the stuff that’s less smart than usual and replace it with stuff that’s more smart.

So, writing (including the crucial revision process) is a handy device that you can use for creating a version of yourself who is smarter than you usually are. Please use it for good, not evil.

Note: The vertical axes of these graphs can be replaced with any other quality you might want to exhibit in your writing, such as honesty, compassion, wisdom, creativity, sexiness, awesomeness, etc. The creation of a multidimensional graph showing the simultaneous variation of all of these qualities is an exercise left to the reader.

I took these photos of the Heidelberg Project in 1998 (-ish?), but I just now got around to scanning them. The Heidelberg Project was created by artist Tyree Guyton along a mostly abandoned block in Detroit. The project still exists, but some parts shown here were demolished by the city in 1999.

It’s one of the most remarkable works of art I’ve ever seen, and it stuck itself deep in my memory.