1. found podcast:

    Jonathan Lethem and Phillip Lopate deconstruct Susan Sontag.

    "Writer, critic and teacher Phillip Lopate reads from his recent critical essay Notes on Sontag, a revelatory and incisive analysis of the life and writings of critic and icon Susan Sontag. With writer Jonathan Lethem, he engages in a lively and exciting debate about Sontag’s career, contradictions and contributions.”

    Phillip Lopate, a writer who is usually described as “remorselessly honest”, has a kind, gentle, and precise way of speaking, and his generously exact analysis of human behavior and motivations are endlessly interesting. 

    "Lopate says, "for me, to be a good writer is already subversive. It’s subversive against mediocrity. And one of the ways you can be subversive is to resist the canonical subversions which are being put forward as the only kind of subversions that matter."

    In the podcast:

    He talks about his favorite kind of writing assignment as sitting, thinking, and “ruminating”.

    Sontag’s “pet-dislikes”, the personal, humanism, and psychology.

    This hilarious fact that characters in Godard films “never had parents - they never came from anyone because they lived in the present”. That they seemed anti-psychology.

    Sontag’s culturally-determined, class-issue position against the memoir, that she wanted to focus on “the new and the cutting-edge”.

    Lopate on how he has (and hasn’t) been influenced by Sontag: “I have always been perverse from an early age on in that as a teenager I thought, well I can enlist in the avant-garde or NOT enlist in the avant-garde”; “I went like everybody else in those years…but then I would go back and try to find what was alive for me in tradition, so it wasn’t that I was anti-avant-garde, it was that I wasn’t that interested in finding the next new thing”; “I thought I liked William Burroughs…and it turned out I didn’t. [These avant-garde writers] served a function for [Sontag’s] argument but she kind of hypnotized me into liking them…In a sense it was all coming out of Samuel Beckett - Beckett was the ruling genius….This was exciting, but it wasn’t particularly nourishing to me. I would go to Beckett plays and I would think ‘yes, very good!’, but then I would go back to reading Henry Fielding or Diderot or something like that. I had a kind of anxiety of influence, that’s the way Harold Bloom would call it. I had problems with the enormity of the Jewish-American writers just ahead of me, like Bellow and Roth and Malamud. I felt like they were taking up all the oxygen, I had go somewhere else. And Sontag was another key Jewish-American writer.’

    Sontag’s origins from Arizona and focus on reinventing herself as a European intellectual to avoid being “incurably middlebrow”. On ‘the American’, “she condescended to it and didn’t understand it - she thought it shallow.”

    Lopate “flinching” at everything written on Sontag, and talking about her writing style “like being translated from another language”, and on European writers and her need “to write in their idiom”.

    Sontag’s ”aphoristic style” of writing, her “high rhetoric that really works better at a shorter distance”.

     
  2. Last night I was introduced to Donald Barthelme's short story “The Balloon”, read by Maria Tucci at 'PRI Selected Shorts' (listen here). It was followed by a brittle Murakami thing about a green monster, which only heightened my first impression of “The Balloon”. The tone is of the relocation of public opinions of sudden art. And it automatically continues findings such as the sci-fi subtlety of Margaret Wertheim, and gives new life to memories of falling asleep to Poe’s 'The Balloon Hoax'.

    Excerpts:

    "Another man might say, "Without the example of —, it is doubtful that —- would exist today in its present form," and find many to agree with him, or to argue with him. Ideas of "bloat" and "float" were introduced, as well as concepts of dream and responsibility. Others engaged in remarkably detailed fantasies having to do with a wish either to lose themselves in the balloon, or to engorge it. The private character of these wishes, of their origins, deeply buried and unknown, was such that they were not much spoken of; yet there is evidence that they were widespread. It was also argued that what was important was what you felt when you stood under the balloon; some people claimed that they felt sheltered, warmed, as never before, while enemies of the balloon felt, or reported feeling, constrained, a "heavy" feeling."

    "Each intersection was crucial, meeting of balloon and building, meeting of balloon and man, meeting of balloon and balloon. It was suggested that what was admired about the balloon was finally this: that it was not limited or defined. Sometimes a bulge, blister or subsection would carry all the way east to the river on its own initiative, in the manner of an army’s movements on a map as seen in headquarters remote from the fighting. Then that part would be, as it were, thrown back again or withdrawn to new dispositions….The ability on the part of the balloon to shift its shape, to change, was very pleasing. Especially to people whose lives were rather rigidly patterned, people to whom change, although desired, was not available."

     
  3. I’m in love with the essay ‘Cary Grant’s Suit’ by Todd McEwen, which is read by James Cromwell in a recent PRI Selected Shorts podcast: “the impeccably tailored, perfectly fitting, wrinkle-resistant suit that Cary Grant wears in Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” is the hero of Todd McEwen’s humorous essay, “Cary Grant’s Suit,” read by “Babe” and “Queen” star James Cromwell.” (listen here)

     
  4. Listening to Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with Simon Winchester at ‘Writers and Company’, I remembered one of my earliest and arguably, nerdiest forms of teenage escape - dictionaries and thesauruses. Particularly those which did not laze around and use words in contemporary contexts, but which sampled from literature from the near and distant past. The Oxford English Dictionary (which is the subject of Amon Shea’s 'Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages') is like a dryly funny, oracle-like advice column. Search for any word and there appears a prickly, droll comment on recent irritants. This afternoon I was assured:

    "Not one momentall minute doth she swerue."

    and

    "Pyrocles, then first seuering his eye liddes, and quickly apprehending her danger."; "Her lips are sever’d as to speak."

     
  5. !!!

    Tales in Verse, and a Chiller.
    at PRI Selected Shorts

    "On this program we invite you to join us at a delightful evening of poetry and fiction selected by the actor and writer John Lithgow. He and Tony Award-winner Bill Irwin read selections from writers such as Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Gertrude Stein and Robert Frost. The second part of the program is given over to Lithgow’s fervent rendering of a horror classic—the macabre tale "The Monkey’s Paw," by the English writer W.W. Jacobs." (listen to the podcast here)

     
  6. Listening to this lecture and reading by Verlyn Klinkenborg, it feels like I’ve taken one of those mysterious creative non-fiction writing classes in college I’ve been wondering about and have always wanted to take (since my last writing class was in the 11th grade). Of what to write, Verlyn asks his students, “What do you notice?” What do you notice in the world, today, just now, recently. He says that if you take notice of something, its obviously worth noticing and worthy of being written about, and that in this culture, “we are taught to ignore what we notice; it is politically inconvenient.” More notes from the lecture:

    - Sincere writing is possible not because of sincerity, but because of a sincerity of a committment to writing and language. Writing is manipulation.

    - You do not need to go through intense, worldly experiences to gain the right/authority to write.

    - The clarity of writing and the clarity of language = if you can do this, you can write about anything; writing subjects are unlimited.

     

  7. St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
    by Karen Russell

    Listening to a reading from Russell’s book at PRI Selected Shorts, then reading more of these stories, I thought:

    These are funny, but they need someone’s fingers in them. Someone to pull out all the potential.
    These stories are stuck within cute satire, that’s all they can ever achieve, and that’s the only space they can live in.
    Festive bows tied to a muzzle = symbol for weak attempts to try to get under the reader’s skin.
    My sympathy for quick, cute absurdity is almost nil.

    Other reviews:

    "A series of upbeat, sentimental fables, the 10 stories of Russell’s debut are set in an enchanted version of North America and narrated by articulate, emotionally precocious children from dysfunctional households. Each merges the satirical spirit of George Saunders with the sophisticated whimsy of recent animated Hollywood film."

    "What hurts the book even more is that all the stories are written in the same voice. The uneducated child in the swamps has the same elevated speaking pattern as the wolf girls who sound just like the kids in the sleep camp. Russell loves language and uses it to its fullest extent. Each story is full of clever sentences and has a unique use of the language. Sadly, it often pulls the reader out of the story wondering how a young girl in the back waters of the bayou knows the meaning of the words ‘ululate’, ‘sophist logic’ or ‘obliquely’."

    "Individually all of these stories are very entertaining. Russell’s flair for symbolism and surrealism set in a world that’s easily relatable shows major talent. If these stories were found in individual issues of a magazine, they would be standouts. Collected they show the flaws in Russell’s style. By telling essentially the same story over and over again in the same heightened manner, Russell demonstrates that that she has a strong command of the English language but not a flair for different characters or conflicts."

    "If you have a perversion…that drives you to chase down short stories that almost but not quite grip you (that truck along like interesting literary experiments covered in soap, so you can’t ever really get to grips with them, the damn things keep slipping through your fingers), St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is for you. The stories in St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves are not bad, by any means; but they’re not great either (and we frequently find ourselves being told that short stories are only ever published these days in a collection if they are ‘exceptional’)."

    "While I was reading…I maintained that cheery grin you plaster all over your mug whenever you meet someone new."

    "what there isn’t here is compulsion. It’s artful but twittery like a bird. What Karen Russell needs to invest in is a knife - the blade can flash and catch the sun, it can be beautiful and beguiling, but there is always the threat of what will happen if I just stop reading right here…?"

     
  8. During Monday’s cold and rain, I was listening to the recent ‘PRI Selected Shorts’ readings on food and was so impressed with this idea of a story through someone’s controlling and ridiculous way of authoring favorite recipes. I’m not a fan of stories that weave around cooking and eating unless its Anthony Burgess’s 'Inside Mr. Enderby'; there should be a balance of food’s as well as the body’s viscerality. But a character’s vanity coming through their impossible cooking instructions is really funny and interesting:

    Food fantasies”:
    "Two delectable pieces about that ever-popular subject, food, glorious food. The first is host Isaiah Sheffer’s reading of an outrageous recipe in the form of a story, "Cooking From Central France: Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double)", by experimental fiction writer Harry Matthews. Second, a charming memoir about cooking on a shoe string by the late food writer and novelist Laurie Colwin, read by musical star Kelli O’Hara."

     
  9. Quoof
    by Paul Muldoon

    How often have I carried our family word
    for the hot water bottle
    to a strange bed,
    as my father would juggle a red-hot half-brick
    in an old sock
    to his childhood settle.
    I have taken it to so many lovely heads
    or laid it between us like a sword.

    A hotel room in New York City
    with a girl who spoke hardly any English,
    my hand on her breast
    like the smoldering one-off spoor of the yeti
    or some other shy beast
    that has yet to enter the language.

     
  10. The moon is made by some lame cooper, and you can see the idiot has no idea about moons at all. He put in a creosoted rope and some wood oil; and this has led to such a terrible stink all over the earth that you have to hold your nose. Another reason the moon is such a tender globe it that people just cannot live on it any more, and all that’s left alive there are noses. This is also why we cannot see our own noses - they’re all on the moon.” (from ‘Diary of a Madman’, Nikolai Gogol)

    And…written of ‘Gogol’s Wife’ by Tommaso Landolfi, which you can hear at Miette’s Bedtime Story Podcast:

    "In the title story, Landolfi strikes a variation on a recurrent theme—man’s need to destroy the objects of his love. For some obscure reason, Landolfi makes the classic Russian novelist Gogol the victim of his fantasy, perhaps because Gogol never married and was given to inventing imaginary affairs."

    "The sick object of Gogol’s love is an inflatable rubber dummy that can be made to assume an infinite number of seductive shapes depending on the pressure to which it is inflated. But as Gogol’s love grows, so does his distaste for his aging rubber wife, and the two "struggle so fiercely with each other in his heart" that on his silver wedding anniversary he deliberately overinflates his wife and blows her to bits, crying, "Oh, how I love her, how I love her, my poor, poor darling!"

     
  11. Wonderful audio stories of everyday people in New York in “1 in 8 million”. Visit.

     
  12. By accident I heard a reading from Rivka Galchen’s 'Atmospheric Disturbances' at PRI Selected Shorts, and was really impressed and fascinated with the following, quoted from reviews of the book and interviews with the writer but which I could also HEAR in the reading:

    "our ability to adequately model the future is limited by our ability to adequately measure and describe the current conditions - struck me as particularly apt. Can we really know one another - or even ourselves - with any certainty given the relatively small amount of information that we are presented with or can process at any one time?"

    "[we] can’t help but project all sorts of emotional value into scientific phrasings and concepts–can’t help but want to extend their analogical power." (from Galchen)

    "And yes, well, there’s a lot of misdirected emotion in the novel, and likewise, the process of writing the book for me was like a kind of sublimation of my own emotions for my own lost love. In a sense the dead and, say, the person we were ten years ago—neither of those people are walking down the street tomorrow. They’re both gone forever. Or at least probably. Leo is on some level searching for a woman who no longer exists in his world, and I was, while writing, similarly ‘searching’ for someone who no longer exists in my world." (from Galchen)

    "Even, or maybe especially, with those most close to us, there’s always this confluence of both having had a misimpression of someone, on top of that someone in fact not being quite who they were ten years or ten days or ten minutes ago."

    "I think we can learn a lot about a character not just (or even) by the direct content of that they say, but about their choice of materials and methods for saying so."

    "There’s this idea that recurs throughout Proust, that people from our past are literally not the same people as they were before, not only because they’ve changed, but because our own past selves — the “I” that had known them — no longer exists."

    "One of my favorite passages in the book has the narrator sitting across from a woman who is crying. We get an extended mental digression from him on how to emotionally distance oneself from crying people. Finally the woman says something, and he looks down, and he realizes that he’s been compulsively eating red pistachios, and his fingers are covered in red coloring, and it occurs to him that he must have been making the loudest cracking and sucking noises while she was crying."

    "That kind of moment holds a lot of interest for me in life in general. I find it seductive when someone is like that. I have a lot of friends who are deeply awkward, and I’m kind of seduced by the things that cripple them. But it’s also a little bit cruel, even though it’s seductive and interesting." (from Galchen)

    "Take emotion that might seem sentimental or useless or weird and project it out into some other arena where it takes on its own shape. While the narrator was sending his attention, involvement and emotions to the wrong person — not his wife — the opposite was true for me. My emotional energy was distorted in a way that I enjoyed distorting it, just by paying attention to the book, and then the narrator refocuses my energy where it would actually be, on sentimental family feelings." (from Galchen)

    "It is on this level, the level of psychological realism rather than postmodern invention, that "Atmospheric Disturbances" succeeds, and where Ms. Galchen displays her real gifts as a writer. As we come to learn, in a series of dropped hints, the real story of Leo and Rema and their marriage, it becomes clear that the particular form of Leo’s delusion is anything but accidental. An older husband, a young wife with a mysterious past, a pregnancy that miscarried, dead fathers, and estranged mothers — these are the ordinary but powerful elements from which Leo concocts his fantasy about love and abandonment."

    Also from interviews with the writer:

    "In my own experience, the one person I feel like I have the least epistemological access to is me. If I hear my voice on an answering machine, I’m shocked, it’s awful. My mom, for instance, can perfectly analyze people around her, but it’s like she doesn’t even know who she is. I see it all the time. I do it all the time, too." (from Galchen)

    "Often people hypothesize other writers as an author’s main influences, but it’s always struck me that a donut shop or a girl band or a fourth-grade crush might be far more influential; who or what are your real influences? Or what do you wish they were? Or does this whole notion of influence just make you want to vomit?" (from Galchen)

    **Being really inexperienced with ‘new’ fiction, and prickled by the dull ‘magic realism’ writing I have tried to read in the recent past, I’m more interested in finding out more about writing techniques from writers like Galchen rather than the little categories they’re shuffled into, or the new writers they’re shoved against in rushed comparison. I’m thinking particularly of similar ‘internalized’ techniques that have left me cold in other works, yet really really interest me in Galchen’s work.

    What is Galchen reading?

     
  13. I don’t know if you’ve listened to any radio stories from either TAL or Radiolab, but you may have noticed the huge cavernous difference between the two approaches to storytelling. Halfway through the Radiolab episode ‘Choices’, I felt the same thing I felt when I’d listened (and stopped listening) about a year ago.

    This positive review of Radiolab lists what it feels are its great qualities, but the list can also be used to mention its terrible qualities. The reviewer begins by assuming, “When somebody comes on the air to shore up a story or drone through a puzzle that they’ve already solved, we usually tune out. Especially in our fast-paced information society”. I wouldn’t say this is true for every listener. The two radio hosts on Radiolab ‘discuss’ the progress of each story before it ever really gets a chance to flesh out. The reviewer says, “It’s like two guys at a coffee table, but every time they turn their heads to one side or another…a little thought bubble pops out and then ‘Poof!’ there’s a scientist.” The hosts treat the storytellers like parlour tricks. The hosts explain “It’s very much about the journey of going through and bumping into stuff and being like, ‘Oh, look at this!’ or ‘Look at that!’”

    Another reviewer said simply “Generally, I really like RadioLab, although I find the production reminiscent of “short attention span theater”, e.g. Bill Nye the Science Guy. Sound effects aren’t for everyone.”

    TAL’s host Ira Glass wrote “Some stories definitely aren’t worth pursuing. These are stories where everything reminds you too much of other stories you’ve already heard, and stories where there’s no sympathetic character (it’s hard for the story to carry much feeling if there’s no one in the story to relate to), and stories where everything kind of works out as you’d sort of expect. Surprise is important.” I think part of the reason why Radiolab doesn’t work for me is the lack of sympathetic storyteller, or the constant interruption and editing of those who might be.

    TAL lets people tell their stories. There are no sound effects apart from usually a non-abrasive piece of music in the background. There is no arrogant, condescending banter. The show believes in the power of the story without having to force it to move along, make it faster and snappier, or give it special effects in order to make it more listenable. TAL trusts its storytellers and respects the intelligence of its listeners.

    November 29, 2008