Carson McCullers: Trying to Understand Why Love is so Difficult…

In The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and in her short stories Carson McCullers seeks again and again after the same goal: to discover why love is so difficult to find and even more difficult to keep….

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories by Carson McCullers (image courtesy Goodreads)

Carson McCullers’ literary reputation has always been rather fragile as her work has an amorphous quality that makes her difficult to classify as a Southern writer even though her work has deep Southern roots. A true Southern eccentric, her work bears the earmarks both of Southern Gothic and of what would later come to be called dirty realism. At the same time her work carries forward the autobiographical strain of Thomas Wolfe, though McCullers’ particular focus is that most powerful and enigmatic of emotions, love. In one way or another, every work by Carson McCullers is a love story. Sadly but not surprisingly these stories are in one way or another stories of love lost. That is partly because McCullers seems to be trying, as autobiographical writers do, to work out the questions in the lost loves of her own life. Still, it would be unfair to say that her fiction is only a sort of self-administered therapy; the best of her works show us love as the rightful goal of human endeavor. Continue reading

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Peter Handke: The Truth About Sorrow…

What makes Handke exceptional is his willingness to engage us as well as himself in the difficulty of telling our truths, sharing our sorrows, interpreting our dreams….

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke (image courtesy Goodreads)

For the last (well, perhaps next to last) work from the “world literature” segment of the 2015 reading list, I return to an author who has decidedly influenced me in the way I write, in the way I think about writing, in the way I assess writing, particularly the writing of literature. I have written before about the great Peter Handke, the brilliant and controversial Austrian novelist, playwright, and filmmaker and about the power of his work to force the reader to reexamine his/her ways of looking at literature and at life.  No author of our time has been more relentless in his search for truth, nor has any author been able to say more with fewer words than Handke. For those few of you who know my work, a light bulb has probably just come on. For those of you not familiar with my work, please go buy it so that I can become a rich, vapid celebrity and lose all this delicious artistic integrity I’m always on about.

Handke is relentlessly brave, sometimes foolishly so, in his pursuit of what it means to be alive and writing about being so, so it should come as no surprise that he is equally as brave and equally as relentless in his examination of death and what it means to be so. His brilliant short meditation A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, written in the weeks after his mother’s suicide in early 1972, is vintage Handke: his search for the meaning of, in this case not simply the death of his mother but her death by suicide and the reasons behind her decision to end her life, as well as his search for what her death means to him, is a tour de force: terse, sometimes curt as a news item, sometimes poetic as a Heine lyric. The result is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius that actually is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Continue reading

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Chris Squire, Prog-Rock demigod…

Chris Squire was not only a founding member of Yes and thus a Prog-Rock demigod – he was also one of the most gifted bassists in the history of rock….

Chris Squire with his Rickenbacker (image courtesy YesWorld.com)

By now most of you who pay attention to such things are aware that Chris Squire, a founding member of Prog-Rock legends Yes, died last night in Phoenix, AZ, of a rare form of leukemia. He was 67.

Squire was/is primarily known as a “player’s player,” a moniker I think he’d like to be remembered by and one any bass player with chops that regularly entered “how’d he do that?” territory certainly deserves.

Some 18 musicians and singers have been members of Yes since its formation in 1968. Numerous great guitarists, drummers, keyboardists, and vocalists have passed through the band.

They’ve had only one bass player. Continue reading

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James Street’s The Gauntlet: That Old Time Religion…

James Street’s The Gauntlet, a novel about the trials of a young Southern Baptist minister in the 1920’s, will ring true, sometimes painfully so, for anyone who ever experienced small town church life….

The Gauntlet by James Street (image courtesy Goodreads)

From the literary efforts of arch poseur Jerzy Kosinski to the earnest writing of James Street is a pretty far leap, but I made it last week. I added this work to my “Southern, mainly North Carolinian” section of the 2015 reading list because I stumbled upon an account of Street’s untimely death in Chapel Hill, NC, in 1954 at the age of 50. That’s probably a rather macabre reason for adding a writer to a reading list, and certainly Street’s literary reputation is that of popular novelist rather than “serious” literary artist. The times we live in have pretty much eviscerated giving any form of art consideration by any other measure than “the marketplace,” however, and almost all of Street’s 17 novels were bestsellers in their time, so by current standards of literary excellence I can easily justify including him among those whose literary reputations might be more admired by the litfic crowd (of whom I’m a proud, card carrying member) whose achievements (and rewards) are too often intangible.

Besides, truth be told, Street is an able writer and The Gauntlet is a pretty good book that rings true in its depiction of small town church politics. Continue reading

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Jerzy Kosinski’s Steps: The Singer Not the Song…?

Steps is a National Book Award winner, a glowingly reviewed best seller – and a completely forgettable book by an author who may or may not be one of literary fiction’s greatest charlatans…

Steps by Jerzy Kosinski (image courtesy Goodreads)

The name Jerzy Kosinski conjures varying reactions among readers and critics and writers of serious fiction. An infamous 1982 exposé in the Village Voice accused him of – well, faking his literary career and may have, at least in part, contributed to his suicide at 57.

The Kosinski literary reputation was/is based primarily on his first three novels: The Painted Bird, a harrowing depiction of childhood (Kosinski claimed it was his, though there are doubts) during the Holocaust, Being There, a novel about the confusing and vulgarizing influences of media on even the most serious minds, and Steps,  a rambling, episodic depiction of bad romances, life under totalitarian rule, and sexual and other forms of depravity that won the National Book Award in 1969.

Steps is, then, a fair book by which to evaluate Kosinski and determine whether his meteoric rise and equally meteoric fall as a major literary  figure of the later 20th century is justified. Continue reading

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Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road: Maybe Southerners Aren’t Merely Caricatures…

Reading Caldwell’s Tobacco Road is reminiscent of watching an episode of Dukes of Hazzard and reading Flannery O’Connor at the same time… 

First, an anecdote:

Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell (image courtesy Goodreads)

Sometime back in my graduate school days I ran into an article in which the scholar spent a number of pages complaining that Charles Dickens didn’t create characters – rather, he created caricatures, exaggerated depictions of humanity. While I saw the guy’s point, it didn’t make me love Dickens any less. It seems to me Dickens’ caricatures (whether an Ebeneezer Scrooge or a Samuel Pickwick) vibrate with more of this thing we call life than most “realistic” literary characters (I’m looking at you, Emma Bovary).

Another anecdote:

I was a voracious reader as a child. Growing up as I did in the South, where for too many folks “reading” consisted of a) checking on how the Tarheels or Gamecocks or Cavaliers did, or b) reading (and usually badly misinterpreting) the Bible, my interests in books and learning made me both an anomaly and an object of suspicion, especially among my peers.

It also allowed me access to secret, forbidden worlds. Like the world of Erskine Caldwell. Continue reading

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Yukio Mishima and the Struggle to be Free…

“…I must point out that a memory which is suddenly revived carries a great power of resuscitation. The past does not only draw us back to the past. There are certain memories of the past that have strong steel springs and, when we who live in the present touch them, they are suddenly stretched taut and then they propel us into the future.” Yukio Mishima, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima (image courtesy Goodreads)

Sometimes one reads an author who makes one wonder what the hell the Nobel committee thinks about when it selects prize winners for literature. I had read some Yukio Mishima many years ago, during my undergraduate days, actually (Nixon was POTUS which should give you some idea of how long ago that was). Mishima’s strange death sparked my interest (I remember reading an article about him and his bizarre ending from, of all places, Life magazine at my parents’ home), so I had been on the lookout for one of his works. I ran into a used copy of his story collection Death in Midsummer and Other Stories  and remember thinking, in my idiosyncratic way, that the title story reminded me of Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” In fact, the collection resonates with the same sort of angst, alienation, and anger at the world/life/what ya got that pervades Salinger’s collection Nine Stories.

That same angst, alienation, and anger pervades The Temple of the Golden Pavilionone of the richest, finest novels a reader will find anywhere in literature. Reading such a powerful work makes one wonder how the Nobel committee ignored Mishima even as they rewarded his friend and mentor Yasunari Kawabata.  The answer to that question is like the answer to another question about the non-rewarding of literature’s most well-known prize that I asked last year: likely political in nature. Continue reading

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