Saturday, October 1, 2011

I'm back!

My blog was deleted because they thought it was spam or porn (I guess I'd prefer the latter), and for a while I wondered if I'd ever see the posts I'd put up again. Then, two days ago I clicked on it, and voila, they'd reinstated it. Right now I'm supposed to be grading but I thought I'd get it active again instead of sitting down to read Heart of Darkness essays. (Yes, y'all: the horror.)

It's chilly today, with that fallish Michigander tang in the air, though at least the sun broke through the heavy clouds for the first time in a week. The leaves are starting to turn. We may be going to Ye Olde Renaissance Fair tomorrow with friends -- Stefan is a gamer at heart, though he doesn't dress up.

We covered the baby lettuces because it's supposed to go down to 34 degrees tonight. We live in a microenvironment that is sometimes cooler, sometimes warmer than the surrounding area. Now that we have such a big garden, I need to figure out how reliable Weather Underground is for our town. Unfortunately, I'm seldom up early enough to see if there's frost on the grass in the morning.

When I was walking Gretel, I heard what I thought was a radio but turned out to be a man with a radio voice in the woods. He sounded like a real fire and brimstone evangelical, and was talking about the vatican and all the devils it was unleashing on us. I was very scared. He had himself all worked up and was shouting, but when I glimpsed him through the trees, he spoke while staring at the ground. It was unnerving. I wanted to call the university police, since he's on school land, but I don't know that he'll do anything to anyone. Still, the current of violence and fury that surged beneath his words made me hurry away as fast as I could.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Squirrel-chest

No, it's not a treasure chest. It's the virtual box in my mind where I put all the squirrels that had been living  in my attic for the past 3 months. Yesterday I blew a gasket and asked Stefan (aka the Mister) to put all the traps we own into every nook and cranny between the ceiling and the roof. No, he said. It's too early, he said. We have to wait for the snow to melt. (He'd been telling me this for a month.)

Why? I finally thought to ask. Why do we have to wait for the snow to melt? He didn't have an answer. So up up up on the roof he went, and in in in to the crannies, stashing his metal traps. And voila! Today, less than 30 hours later, he's already nabbed 5!

This morning, for the first time in months, I didn't wake up at 6 am to the squirrels sawing and nailing and building their new bedroom extensions. Oh, I woke up. They've trained me too well for me not to have woken up. But when I awoke? It was quiet.

Ah. Then I fell back asleep.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Reviewing for Bookslut

My first review for this fabulous site is now up here; I'm pleased to be starting up as one of their regular reviewers. I haven't been reviewing on a regular basis since I left Publishers Weekly a few years back. (Good lord, how many years was that? Don't check; better not to know.) Over those (uncounted) years, I reviewed a few books here and there (for Rain Taxi and American Book Review, plus some scholarly journals), but I wasn't really connecting with any particular place, or else I was just too tired to start back up again as a regular reviewer.

But as the years passed I found I missed reviewing more and more. This surprised me a bit, after my burn-out at PW. But part of what's nice about reviewing for Bookslut is choosing my books. I always got top authors to review at PW, but the twice-a-month schedule was a bit brutal. Plus I kept that twice-a-month pace with few breaks for two years. (The schedule was hard, but when Reed, who owned PW, downsized many of the review staff and cut our pay for reviews almost in half, it really got old.)

For six months now, I've been sniffing around at a number of different places, thinking about getting back into it. I thought at first that I would like to write for Bookforum. The book review editor there is a really nice guy. He suggested I start out by writing one of their book syllabi for them. So I pitched my syllabus on fantastic lit that I have posted on this site (it's the Monday, 11/15/10 entry on The Literary Fantastic) and the editor gave it a go. I wrote it up, but then he didn't feel it fit with their format. Okay, I thought, I haven't yet taught the class on which I based that syllabus. (I'm teaching it now: it's called "The Sacred and Profane in the Secular Realm: Fantastic and Postmodern Contemporary Novels.") So I pitched another syllabus, this time basing it on a class I had finished teaching (it was called "The Other: Literary Outsiders"). The editor didn't like the first pitch on The Other because it sounded too academic, so I re-wrote it, using language that was more slangy. But that version didn't work for him either. So I pitched another syllabus on novels that portray life in the theater world. Never heard back from him.

I was puzzled at first. The book editor was kind and seemed encouraging, even while nixing my projects. Each time he'd compliment me and say he thought we would find something that would work. I wondered if I was being politely blown off, but then thought, well, I'm a professional; he's got to know that he can just tell me if what I'm writing doesn't work for him. He knows I'll be cool with it. And since he continues to be encouraging, it must be because he does think I can do something for Bookforum, I just have to find the right tone and/or subject.

I think, in the end, Bookforum and I didn't fit each other. It was a mini-lesson for me in the difference between the world of professional publishing and academia. As a teacher, over the years I've developed the ability to give hard, precise criticism to my students, and to be firm in telling them what doesn't work. (I like to think: tough but fair, but at times I'm sure students want to weep.) However, professional interactions are different. Out here in the world of publishing, no one wants to hurt your feelings, even if you say and act like you can take it. I continue to admire and respect Bookforum, and honestly, I should have been more astute about my own tonal preferences and aesthetics. I realize now that I really turn on the earnest enthusiasm, the moral intensity, leavened by maybe a soupcon of puppyish playfulness. In contrast, Bookforum articles are wry and hip and have a kind of New York knowing that I don't have. I probably didn't have it even when I lived in that city. I really admire the urban communal identity, and sometimes wish I could align my own sensibilities with it, but nope, I can't.

So, I am now a bookslut. I am really happy with where I've landed, love Jessa Crispin and Michael Schaub, Bookslut's smart and witty guiding lights, and (can you tell?) really enjoy getting to call myself a bookslut. And who doesn't like the outsider cool cachet?

Monday, January 3, 2011

A new year

At last, the intense grading of the 3-course fall semester is over, as is the holiday in St Louis. This was an emotionally-difficult 3 weeks, but if one can wade through it, there is the upswing again. And so: we are home, dogs are back from the kennel, life begins again.

And though the past 3 weeks were a bit tough, it was delicious to have two days of 48 degree weather to bring in the New Year. All the snow is gone! In Michigan, in January! Yes, this is probably bad news for the planet, but to soothe myself I take the geological view. The planet has experienced 6 or 7 die-offs in its history, wherein it lost 85% of its species, and yet life continues. We are in the midst of another die-off, one we caused. It's awful, but all we can do is be present, bear witness, try to conserve where we can.

And now I prepare for the winter semester. Advanced fiction writing and the seminar on the Sacred and Profane in a Secular Age. Really great novels, and the textbooks by Peter Berger and Mircea Eliade are pretty interesting.

And the writing continues, and Stefan begins work on more mosaics. The one in our foyer is gorgeous!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Short History of Myth

The author is Karen Armstrong, former nun, historicist of religions, blower of minds.

In her book, she argues that we've lost the ability to think (if "think" is the right word) mythically. One hopeful conclusion she comes to: artists and writers can perhaps help us to return to this lost way of experiencing the world.

The surrealists worried about this loss, too (if, that is, the surrealists can be said to have "worried" about anything).

There is a nightingale in the middle of a thick wood. It sings though its throat is torn out.

No children go to that forest to play or to be menaced. They know better, or they have lost the instinct for being drawn to life-illuminating danger.

This is the nightingale's song:

I think, though I am now a bird, that I was once a child. I can't remember what I thought, when I stood on the carpet and looked around at the sea of legs belonging to adults. Even their legs were taller than I was.

I can't imagine that I went on to grow up. I can't imagine that I made decisions that affected the fate of oceans, that influenced tribal wars on the other side of the globe. I don't believe that I broke someone's heart and then lied about it.

The nightingale listens to the echo of its song coming toward it through the dusk.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Alice Munro: Hypnogogic Realist

Having declared my dissatisfaction with realism, I have to figure out how the hell to label Alice Munro, whom I love so very very much. I also have to figure out what it is that connects her with other writers whom I love so very very much. And so, here is a list of some of the contemporary writers who sweep me away:

Penelope Fitzgerald, Hilary Mantel, John Berger, Toni Morrison, Leslie Marmon Silko, W.G. Sebald, Roberto Bolano, Grace Paley, Italo Calvino, Kathryn Davis, Bruno Schulz, Peter Carey, Flann O'Brien, Jim Crace, Ursula K. LeGuin, Chinua Achebe, J. M. Coetzee, Ben Okri, Don DeLillo.

I list them because in my mind, a wonderful, barely visible halo exists around each of them. I can't say exactly what I love about them because when I read them I am transported to a place beyond words. I immerse myself in these novels and stories; I experience them, simply and transcendently. The pleasure is so acute that at times I stop reading in order to savor and wonder at it.

My instinct is to say that it has something to do with the way these authors train their gazes on their subject. They may be exploring psychological realism, fantastic realism, postmodernism, what have you. And yet, as they write, they disappear into the writing. That, anyway, is what I imagine. In the course of writing these works, they give themselves up. And in the course of reading their works, I give up myself.

Hypnogogic Realism. The allure of the liminal; the eluding of boundaries. To be seduced, and not disappointed.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

On Earnestness

Seriously! Or do I mean sincerely? (Reading John Gallaher on a Poet Gang I'd never heard of, associated with a thang called "The New Sincerity.") I myself am so tired of the ironic pose.

After all, this is it, right here, right now.

A shout-out to all my students, who in spite of the end-game desperation that engulfs us all at this time of the semester, have been staying after class to talk excitedly about a number of really vital things. In the last few days, we have discussed the importance of fighting to preserve the environment, the joys and satisfactions of writing, and how utterly cool it is that they can now begin to see how much they've learned over the last three months. They tell me about new movies, new links, new slang, new trends. This is the great thing about teaching. You learn so much.

(I know, I know, Hallmark moments, but it's late, today I had a 12-hour day of classes and student meetings, and then watched Jon Stewart and Colbert. Colbert talked about two of the politicians vying to take over the House Energy Committee, John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who refuted global warming by quoting the Bible (god promised: no more floods) and Joe Barton (R-Texas), who explained that wind, which is necessary to cool off the world, would be slowed down by wind turbines and so the world would get hotter if we transitioned from fossil fuels to wind energy. OMFG.)

After this I had to watch two episodes of Family Guy, the sheer weirdness of which helped me to detox from the surreal nightmare that is our current political shitstorm. After the election I told myself no more politics. Do I ever listen to myself? Evidently not.

Should we listen to ourselves? We tell ourselves some seriously crazy shit. The left brain keeps on reassuring us that our narratives make sense. But more on left brain's shenanagans another time.