Reading: So Many Books

There exists a belief that at least a few things should be read by the whole world. But what could be said to everyone? If there were a permanent universal assembly, at which a microphone was passed around so that each person could speak to the crowd, we would scarcely have time to say hello and sit down. The universal dialogue would be reduced to a recognition of the self, a kind of Babelian poem of creation consisting of everyone saying “Good morning” to one another. Maybe that is what life is: We stand up and say hello and then disappear.
Gabriel Zaid, So Many Books

My general rule is to read whatever Robin Sloan tells me to. It’s a good rule. Solid and true.


Amy Bloom: on humor

Sarah Anne Johnson interviews Amy Bloom in Conversations with American Women Writers:

Q: You often use humor to diffuse an emotionally intense situation, and at the same time to create pathos, or a sense of the real sadness underlying the attempt at humor and the need for humor in a given situation. For instance, in "Silver Water," the scenes with the therapists, especially Big Nut, are funny in spite of the gravity of the situation. Are you aware of this as you work, or does it just come out at certain times? How does humor work in your fiction?

A: I don't see that much as diffusing the sadness of the situation. There is humor in grief. Funny things happen in hospitals. That's just how it is. I don't think that life is composed of sad moments, which are sad, in which bad things have happened to good people, and happy moments, in which good things have happened to good people. So for me, there being humor in the midst of difficulty and pain is not an attempt to either lighten the pain, or change the focus, or make a comment on it. It's the way it is. To me it's no different than the idea that there are both flowers and weeds in the garden. I don't feel like if I see weeds in the garden, I think, That's an interesting comment on the flowers. I think, That'd be because it's a garden.

Summer reading

It's no lie to say this is the greatest video I've ever seen, nor even an exaggeration, and special bonus points for George Saunders. Go Dog Lincoln! He looks so humbled by the weighty mantle history has placed upon his haunches. Rest well, olde fellow.

Reading “Lincoln in the Bardo”

Abraham Lincoln, the story goes, visited the crypt of his 11-year-old son Willie shortly after the boy's interment at a cemetery in Georgetown in February of 1862, and during at least one of these visits—the story goes—opened the coffin, removed the body, and cradled it in his arms. George Saunders draws up this slim thread of history and weaves 343 fantastical hardbound pages from it, streaming out over a single night stuffed with dozens of ghostly narrators who, like young Willie, have found themselves in a sort of foggy neverland betwixt life and death known, in the Tibetan tradition, as "the bardo." These ghosts, however, do not know themselves to be dead; they are all hung up and hanging on, clinging to what they remember of the living world and determined to hold there. Yet the bardo is no safe resting place for the young and unencumbered, and so three of them take upon themselves the monumental task to somehow—through the father—convince the child to go.

That's all. I would have been angry if anyone had told me more.

I started “Lincoln in the Bardo” late yesterday and did not quit it til the end, went straight on through afternoon and twilight and evening. I was careful to eat and take liquids, though, careful not to rush. There is a groove and a flow and a line to reading smooth, if you know what I mean, it's precious and rare and I let that line out slowly, afraid the characters might slip away if I let in too much air between us. It's a sitting, this book. It needs your attention and patience. It will dip your head down low and leave you swaying, if you let it. (I let it. I loved it.) It's dark and strange and joyous and deeply, achingly sad. It's a little precious, maybe, a little wayward and confounding, a mixture of Twain and Dickens and Ken Burns and "Waiting for Godot" tossed with Saunders' patented brand of empathy and humor and awe. (Imagine in this day and age your brand being "kindness" and "imagination" and "intelligence.") I've never read anything like it. It's a weird concoction and a wild yarn and a rollicking wonder. By all means, do read!

My God, what a thing! To find oneself thus expanded!
—hans vollman

How had we forgotten? All of these happy occasions?
—the reverend everly thomas

To stay, one must deeply and continuously dwell upon one's primary reason for staying; even to the exclusion of all else.
—roger bevins iii

One must be constantly looking for opportunities to tell one's story.
—hans vollman

(If not permitted to tell it, one must think it and think it.)
—the reverend everly thomas

But this had cost us, we now saw. We had forgotten so much, of all else we had been and known.
—roger bevins iii

Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel
By George Saunders

Harriet Walter about town

Perhaps you're tired of hearing about Harriet Walter? That's okay, I'm tired of hearing about Tom Brady and Roger Federer and every sports team that has ever lived. Not that I begrudge human beings for loving sports or sports figures or balls of any kind (hey there, fella) but come on. Try counting the number of manly team logos you see the next time you walk down the street or hang out at the mall. If you come up with fewer than five I will pay you a million billion unicorn dollars and a thousand magic beans. My point is, the day people stop talking about Michael Jordan is the day I'll stop talking about Harriet Walter. Obviously neither of those things will ever happen, but somehow we'll all survive. Somehow life will go on.

Anyway, here are some pictures from an interview and book signing last night at the Drama Book Shop, starring Harriet Walter (ironically not pictured), who recently penned this tome about her long and varied Shakespeare career, which thanks to her collaboration with director Phyllida Lloyd now includes multiple male characters. Brava/o! Contrary to popular belief, Harriet Walter does not come to town all that often, so it's important to celebrate these events. "Americans are so effusive!" was her response to me shouting "Harriet Walter, we love it when you come to town!" across the signing table, and she was suitably impressed by the array of nonsensical nicknames we asked her to inscribe. She probably thought we were idiots. I cannot say she would be wrong.

At the end of the interview she read the book's epilogue, which is a "Dear Will" letter asking William Shakespeare to come back from the grave and correct his ladies. On getting the chance to finally be cast as the dudes (in Julius Caesar, Henry IV, and The Tempest), she writes: "My function in the story is no longer constrained by my gender, and I am freed up to play out the general political and moral dilemmas that concern us all." And later, vis-Ă -vis her frustration over the limited scope of the female roles, "Our stories matter not because of our relation to men but because we are members of the human race."

But my favorite line was from the interview itself, when asked why she's never played Gertrude in Hamlet: "It's the most famous play in the world and it has two shitty roles for women!"

The one thing I know is this world needs more Harriet Walter in it.

The End (for now).

Tell us

In surrendering our mass storytelling function to entities whose first priority is profit, we make a dangerous concession: “Tell us,” we say in effect, “as much truth as you can, while still making money.” This is not the same as asking: “Tell us the truth.”

A culture’s ability to understand the world and itself is critical to its survival. But today we are led into the arena of public debate by seers whose main gift is their ability to compel people to continue to watch them.
— George Saunders, The Braindead Megaphone