30 December 2009

On impulse, I’ve just re-read Marilynne Robinson‘s Housekeeping.  It’s my third reading, the first about a decade ago.

This time around, I am struck by the complexity of the novel’s theology.  Or maybe what I mean to say is that I am struck by just how theological the novel is.  In the past I might have described the novel as “beautiful.”  This time around, I felt its brutality.  Ruthie Stone is the embodiment of a loneliness so deep and utter:  when she crosses that bridge, that harrowing journey at the end, both away from nothingness and toward nothingness, it seems to me that she crosses from loneliness as a constant companion to loneliness as her essence.  Darkness, cold, estrangement — she is swallowed whole.

Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it.  God Himself was pulled after us into the vortex we made when we fell, or so the story goes… Being man He felt the pull of death, and being God He must have wondered more than we do what it would be like…

…when I think back to the crossing of the bridge, one moment bulges like the belly of a lens and all the others are at the peripheries and diminished.  Was it only that the wind rose suddenly, so that we had to cower and lean against it like blind women groping their way along a wall? or did we really hear some sound too loud to be heard, some word so true we did not understand it, but merely felt it pour through our nerves like darkness or water?

I don’t know what to do with Housekeeping on this third read.  I am shaken by it.  There is a feeling that Robinson wrote the book in a kind of visionary trance; and her vision rivals Rilke’s in its terrifying (beautiful?) understanding of what it is to be a stark, lone soul in the universe.


28 December 2009

I can’t seem to stop listening to poet Frederick Seidel reading his work at this New York Review of Books podcast.

The corresponding blog post by Charles Simic here.

27 December 2009

I found this December 24 segment from NPR’s “Tell Me More” on micro-sculptor Willard Wigan rather moving.  Wigan makes figurative sculptures the size of the eye of a needle.

…there’s an old saying: Just because you cannot see something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. So I wanted to show people how big nothing can become…

22 December 2009

A wonderful piece in the Wall Street Journal by James Collins about reading Jane Austen for moral content.

The word “moral” has a bad rap in modern intellectual life.  I like how Collins is reclaiming and endowing it with the nuances it requires.

Here’s a snippet about Austen and Romanticism:

Austen lived on the cusp of the 18th-century Augustan and 19th-century Romantic ages. In our own time, nearly every song, advertisement and movie is based on Romantic principles. No matter how much we may enjoy the “felicities of domestic life,” as Austen put it in “Persuasion,” we still feel the enormous Romantic pull to do something more heroic and intense. Rather than digesting a good dinner while conversing with friends, we should be out forging the consciousness of our race in the smithy of our soul, or some damn thing. I don’t really want to forge the consciousness of my race, but at the same time I don’t want to miss out on all that Romanticism offers. This is where Austen comes in, for she is an Augustan familiar with Romanticism, which makes her more useful than a modern writer in helping us face the Romantic challenge. Only she can so credibly show us that it is possible to have moderation and deep feeling, good dinners and good poetry.

And here, Collins further shows us that Austen is a consummate “both/and” artist, not “either/or” — something I care about and worry over more persistently than probably anything else in life.

How can morals, sentiments and manners help one live in the world? What should one’s relations to the world be? Should one reject the world entirely as corrupt and mercenary and hypocritical and shallow? Or is there some other way, where one can keep one’s integrity and sensitivity, but live in the world too? W. H. Auden stated the problem well when he wrote:

“Does Life only offer two alternatives: ‘You shall be happy, healthy, attractive, a good mixer, a good lover and parent, but on the condition that you are not overcurious about life. On the other hand you shall be sensitive, conscious of what is happening round you, but in that case you must not expect to be happy, or successful in love or at home in any company. There are two worlds and you cannot belong to them both.'”

In effect, Auden is asking if life offers only the two alternatives of “Sense and Sensibility,” and one can sympathize with his cry of despair, for when the dilemma is put the way he puts it, the two seem hopelessly irreconcilable.

Austen comes to our rescue, though, for she does manage to modulate between “Sense and Sensibility,” rejecting the excesses of both. Her attitude appeals because the combination of morals, sentiments, and manners provides a way of living that allows one both to be in the world and to enjoy the sweets of sensitivity as well. Austen does not write about bohemians and rebels; she doesn’t want to change her world—”she would not alter a hair on anyone’s head or move one brick,” as Virginia Woolf wrote. Her sympathetic characters participate fully in their society and accept its conventions, yet they have exquisitely well-tuned minds and hearts. Good sense does not have to be at war with sensibility.

Enjoy the whole article, and, I say, let reading — all reading — shape you in every way, including your moral education.

19 December 2009

In April, I’m looking forward to a spin around my old ‘hood , and the city I consider my “literary birthplace” — Seattle.

On April 6, I’ll read with the talented graduate students in the writing program at the University of WA, my alma mater, as part of their monthly Castalia Reading Series.  (8pm at Hugo House)

On April 7, I’ll read at the brand new Elliott Bay Book Co. — a legendary independent bookstore where I browsed and shopped and attended readings and wondered if I’d ever write a novel, back in the day.  The store has just announced that it will be moving to a new location on Capitol Hill — which I’m thinking is good news overall, economically speaking, despite the loss of that beautiful, historical space in Pioneer Square.

And on April 5, perhaps, hopefully, something very cool and groovy will be happening at Street Bean Espresso, in which I hope to take part.

Emerald City, here I come!

17 December 2009

David Foster Wallace referred to the three male writers who “dominated postwar American fiction” — Roth, Updike, Mailer — as the GMNs: the Great Male Narcissists.

I have managed to not read any of them.  Until now.  Just finished Roth’s Everyman — a recommendation from a trusted (female) friend — which I enjoyed, and I’ve also just received American Pastoral as a gift.  I’m looking forward to it. Actually, it all started with Roth’s short story, “The Conversion of the Jews,” brought in to class by a student. Slowly, slowly, I dip my toe into the abyss of great male narcissism.

Why?  (shrug)  I’ll have a better answer to that, perhaps, a few books down the road.

Updike is probably up next — stories first, then maybe a Rabbit novel.

14 December 2009

In light of the recent announcement that Kirkus Reviews will close down, some wonder whether the pre-pub review is even useful or relevant anymore. Here’s a post at publishingperspectives.com.

According to the writer, Kirkus was known as “the mean one,” relative to Booklist, Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly.  I suppose those of us awaiting pre-pub reviews might breathe a sigh of relief (though no disrespect meant for those losing their jobs over at Kirkus).  Someone asked me recently what I would honestly “want” to see in a review, specifically.  Hmm… I think perhaps it’s like porn, i.e. you know it when you see it.