The Venereal Game: or, You Don’t Have a Dirty Mind, Do You…?

James Lipton’s book on venery is about as much fun as one can have with words.

An Exaltation of Larks or, The Venereal Game by James Lipton

I’m back to the 2014 reading list with a book I picked up at my favorite used book shop – this one about as much fun as one can have with words. The book is called An Exaltation of Larks, or The Venereal Game and it’s written by James Lipton – yep, the same James Lipton who was the longtime dean of the Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University and host of Bravo’s fascinating Inside the Actors Studio.

While this book is indeed about venery, it’s the second definition at the link that fits Lipton’s work, not the first. Certainly there’s indulgence bordering on the decadent, but it’s overwhelmingly of the mental rather than physical sort – though for those of you whose minds drift in those directions, there’s enough titillation to make even the flashing of wit that pervades this work – an excitement of thinkers.

Venery, for those who have refused to hypertext, in that second definition means “animals that are hunted; game.” The derivation of the word is given as follows:

Middle English venerie, from Anglo-French, from Old French vener to hunt, from Latin venari — more at venison.  First Known Use: 14th century

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Book Review: Jupiter and Gilgamesh: a Novel of Sumeria and Texas by Scott Archer Jones

Jupiter and Gilgamesh is a story about life decisions – good, bad, and inexplicable – and how those decisions add up ultimately to – a life well lived…

Jupiter and Gilgamesh: a Novel of Sumeria and Texas by Scott Archer Jones (image courtesy Goodreads)

I have an empathetic affinity for the genesis of Scott Archer Jones’s latest novel, Jupiter and Gilgamesh: a Novel of Sumeria and Texas. Jones states that the genesis of his book came partly from a high school English teacher who made him read The Epic of Gilgamesh – and that the character of Gilgamesh was so intriguing (probably compelling is a better word) that he’s read the poem multiple times since that first encounter.

In the vernacular of our time, I feel you, Scott. My first book came partly from my experience of a couple of related works first read at the behest of teachers: Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and Malory’s Morte D’Arthur. The power of literature draws us on, it seems, like the song of the sirens until some of us begin to “sing in our chains,” as the poet said.

That singing in one’s chains thing is a key theme in Jupiter and Gilgamesh. The main character is one Matthew (Matt) Devon, a gifted advertising man who owns a very successful ad agency in Amarillo, Texas. When we meet Matt, however, (I’ll ignore the novel’s prelude for now)  he is living – hiding out, really – in an old grain elevator that he is having remodeled in a small farming town a short distance from Amarillo), trying to run his business via phone conferences, and has taken to calling himself Jupiter. His rationale for the first two acts is that he’s developed a trying case of anthropophobia (perhaps more well known as social anxiety disorder). His rationale for the last is partly that he’s using the alias as a  nom de guerre with his “counselor,” a New Age “life coach”  named Marjorie who offers Matt tea and sympathy both literally and figuratively. He’s a man in retreat from business, from people, from life.

And then Gilgamesh shows up. He teaches Jupiter/Matt a new tune. Continue reading

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Book Review: Throwing the house from the window by Joshua William Booth…

Poems that occasionally challenge readers…the “trigger warning” excuses can begin in 3…2…1….

Throwing the House From the Window by Joshua William Booth

A couple of things will become obvious quickly for readers of this review. The first is that the reviewer has the same last name as the author being reviewed. That would be because we are related. Put that aside. If writers from Sophocles to Turgenev to Steinbeck have taught us anything, it’s that father to son assessments should be read with…a critical mind, let’s say.

The second is that the author of this volume of poetry is a working poet as well as the poetry editor at Scholars & Rogues – where I am fiction editor. So I admit freely there’s a bit of insider trading going on here. But I challenge the reader to find a publication that does not tout works by its own staff. For those who’ve taken that challenge – well, they’ll be gone awhile, so let’s move on, shall we?

Throwing the house from the window is Booth’s third book and second book of poetry.  A brief look at his first two works is probably apropos to set this third work in context.

His second book, Danger! God Particles is a series of what would commonly be called “flash fictions” these days, though Booth, an admirer of Donald Barthelme (and arguer with this reviewer on multiple occasions about the author’s merits) would point the reader towards Sixty Stories as an influence.  Continue reading

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There is no “Greatest Short Story of All Time…”

There is no “greatest” short story. There are only great short stories and great writers…

Stephen Crane (image courtesy Wikimedia)

It’s wonderful to know literature. It’s great to have favorite writers. It’s even enjoyable to argue about who our best writers are, what their greatest works are.  And of course, we live in a “list culture” that thrives on creating arbitrary lists of “the greatest” in about every category of human endeavor – including cat videos.

Knowing the Internets as we all do, I’m not sure why I let myself get exercised by James Parker’s essay published at Slate a couple of days ago proclaiming “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” the greatest short story of all time. People are constantly arguing about what literature was, is, will be, or should be. Including this guy.

But there were a couple of points that Parker attempted to make (and that I, for one, didn’t buy) that piqued my interest – and that set my crap detector to clicking.

So let us begin….

Parker’s first point had to do with what makes a great short story. His context is that, above all, a story should capture the reader/listener’s attention, should draw in the audience and hold them with its power:

It’s what fiction should be, basically, what it should be aiming at: the death-grip, the ultimate concern. The naked lunch.

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Sinclair Lewis Imagines American Dictatorship: It Can’t Happen Here…Can It…?

“More and more, as I think about history…I am convinced that everything that is worthwhile in the world has been accomplished by the free, inquiring, critical spirit, and that the preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system, whatsoever.  But the men of ritual and the men of barbarism are capable of shutting up the men of science and of silencing them forever.” – Doremus Jessup in Sinclair Lewis’s, It Can’t Happen Here

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (image courtesy Goodreads)

It may seem strange that I choose to write about Sinclair Lewis’s dystopian satire, It Can’t Happen Here, for July 4th, the high holy day of the American ideal/experiment. Lewis’s novel is, after all, about the subversion of American democracy into a dictatorship. Worse, that dictatorship, is controlled by the leader of a political party called, presciently enough, The American Corporate State and Patriot Party. If ever someone seemed a political seer trying to warn us to consider the results of our actions, Lewis is that seer and It Can’t Happen Here is his warning. Published in 1935, the novel both reminds us of the complicated economic and political stresses of that time and, in an eerie way, reads (for anyone who has been paying attention over the last decade) like the playbook of – well, of both the “corporate citizen” and “patriot” movements within American politics.

For those who don’t know the work of Lewis (and, sadly, that will be far too many), his stock in trade as a novelist was the closely detailed, wittily sarcastic satirization of American life and culture. His masterpiece, Main Street, looks at the smug conservatism of American small towns; Babbitt is an indictment of bourgeois conformity and the practice of “boosterism” (called by another name today, but as rampant now as when Lewis wrote his novel); Arrowsmith, an inquiry into how science, specifically the practice of medicine, is affected by “expected” definitions of success; Elmer Gantry, his attempt to expose the hypocrisy of too many “big time” religious evangelists;  and Dodsworth, a critique of the wealthy (whom Lewis found intellectually empty and self-absorbed). For this body of work Lewis became America’s first Nobel Prize winner in literature in 1930.

It Can’t Happen Here began life as an intended indictment of political demagoguery – in particular, Lewis intended to satirize “The Kingfish,” Louisiana governor and senator (and would-be US President) Huey Long.  Long’s assassination in Baton Rouge, as well as Lewis’s growing concern as he learned more and more about fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany changed the course of his novel – and It Can’t Happen Here was the result. Continue reading

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Making the Familiar Strange: Is This the Key to Artistic Nirvana…?

…when damn near everything presents itself as familiar — it’s not a surprise that some of today’s most ambitious art is going about trying to make the familiar strange. In so doing, in re-imagining what human life might truly be like over there across the chasms of illusion, mediation, demographics, marketing, imago, and appearance, artists are paradoxically trying to restore what’s taken for “real” to three whole dimensions, to reconstruct a univocally round world out of disparate streams of flat sights. – Jonathan Lenthem

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (image courtesy Goodreads)

Sam Smith and I had this email conversation last week (we have such conversations fairly regularly) about writing. I had just reviewed another highly successful genre novel, Hugh Howey’s Wool, and was mewling and puking as I often do about a primary complaint I have about some of the most popular – and revered – authors of the current boom in genre lit of one form or another: their tendency to spend the endings of their novels setting up the next book in their series.  But we also got into talking about pacing and other writerly matters. We were conversing about a friend who’s currently shopping a couple of excellent manuscripts – both compelling storytelling, both genre related (but not genres currently considered “hot” by the publishing industry). In one message Sam had advised our friend to consider writing a work of  fantasy, speculative, or dystopian fiction. I read that advice with a mixture of appreciation and wistful envy and offered my take on my chances of ever writing anything genre based:

I looked at your comments to [friend's name redacted] about writing sci-fi/fantasy/speculative fiction and thought, “Yep. He could do that.”  Then I thought “Why can’t I?” But I know the answer. It’s just not stuff I could care enough about to want to write. Wish to hell I could.
But no, I’ll just putz along with my silly lit fic and sell maybe a few hundred copies of something and think I’ve had a great run. Of course I also think, “Should writing simply be about making money?” And Samuel Johnson’s words come up and kick me in the ass: “No man, except a blockhead, ever wrote, except for money.”
Say hello to the king of the blockheads….

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Dave Davies’ Kink: Rock Star Same as He Ever Was…

“There is part of that little boy that has remained with me…. He’s always there to remind me of the endless possibilities that exist in the world, all that life has to offer….” – Dave Davies

Kink by Dave Davies (image courtesy Goodreads)

I bought Dave Davies’ “autobiography,” (it’s really a highly discursive memoir with plenty of digressions) Kink about a year ago at my favorite used book store. I’d just read a couple of rock books, including a lovely memoir about meeting John and Yoko at the height of their “bed-in for peace” period and earlier I’d waded through a typical “rock bio” book about the Rolling Stones: you know the type, lots of pictures, very little reported that a serious fan wouldn’t already know – or know more about than the author.

Prior to taking up this yearly quest to write essays about all the books I read in a particular year (and, in the process, getting myself lots of recommendations from friends and pleas from fellow writers for book inclusions), I’d read a number of rock biographies and autobiographies, including biographies of The BeatlesElvis, and Bob Dylan and the recent autobiographies of Eric Clapton and Keith Richards. In the queue for this year I have Dylan’s memoirPattie Boyd’s book about her marriages to George Harrison and Eric Clapton, and Pete Townshend’s autobiography.

I dig rock and roll music, as the song says….

There are two matters to take up in writing about Dave Davies’ look back at his time as the lead guitarist (and creator of one of rock’s most memorable sonic  experiences, that overloaded guitar riff that kicks of “You Really Got Me”) for one of one of  the bands who stand head and shoulders above all others as the giants of the British Invasion – The Kinks.  The first matter is the story Davies tells about himself and his life as a rock star. The second is about criticism, just and unjust, Davies has received for his honesty and openness in telling that story. Continue reading

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