Posts in bookish
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 boy's 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-à-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
Reading “Born to Run,” forever and ever, the end


He writes like a preacher, or maybe a madman, like there aren't enough words in the world for what he needs to say. He writes with the fervor of the self-educated, of someone who came to his powers late and with surprise, and no small amount of pride. There's effort in it, pure sweat and blood. Not that it's effortful, or labored, but it's thoughtful. He takes care. There's work on the page. The words sit where he wants them to, with a grace and a balance, which is to me what separates a writer from someone telling a story. He wants to understand and to be understood; there is so much of himself he wants to share but not all the time in the world. We write for love and we read for pleasure but it's a business in the end, man. Simon & Schuster wants product.

My belief is that this book is only 508 pages long because he had to stop somewhere. Because there was a contract and a pub date and a marketing plan. Not because he wanted to.

In analysis you work to turn the ghosts that haunt you into ancestors who accompany you. That takes hard work and a lot of love, but it's the way we lessen the burdens our children have to carry. Insisting on our own experience, our own final calculus of love, trouble, hard times and, if we're lucky, a little transcendence. This is how we claim our own lives as sons and daughters, independent souls on our piece of ground. It's not always an option. There are irretrievable lives and unredeemable sins, but the chance to rise above is one I wish for yours and mine.  
Born to Run
By Bruce Springsteen
Reading “Born to Run,” part X of infinity

...continued! I've passed the part where Bruce records “Born in the U.S.A.,” thereby achieving mega-fame and riches. He has married and divorced Julianne Phillips, which he recalls in a rueful way, shouldering all of the blame and admitting to his shady spousal behavior. He has married Patti Scialfa, disbanded the E Street, had three kids, escaped from LA, and settled back in New Jersey. There are many battles but the only real foe is himself. Life is like this for most people, of course, and he makes no bones about it (as David Letterman says, "Maybe life is the hard way"): he's interested in the how and the why and the what-for, and he digs for it. He wants the answers and does the searching and when he feels he comes up short, which is often, he owns it. Bruce Springsteen is a rock & roll star and a decent man, is what you'll learn from reading this book.

He loves his wife:

My wife is a private person, not known through whatever her "public persona" may be, and not nearly as fond of the limelight as I. Her talents have only been hinted at in her work. She has great elegance and dignity and we've built a lot together out of these broken pieces. We found once those pieces were set in place, they weighed in as hard stone, each piece pressuring and holding the pieces above and beneath it for twenty-five years (in a dog's life and musical companionships, that's somewhere around 175 years!). Two loners, we weren't necessarily destined for the gold ring(s), but we stole them...and locked them away.

He loves his kids:

The raging river of my ambivalence, my lifelong low ambient hum of discontent, is silent. Dismissed by rapture. The doctor hands me scissors; a snip, and my boy's on his own. I lay him upon his mama's belly and this vision of my son and wife takes me far into my own highest room. We are huddled together with seven pounds and eleven ounces of living proof. We are one short breath of night and day, then dirt and stars, but we're holding the new morning.

He loved his therapist:

In all psychological wars, it's never over, there's just this day, this time, and a hesitant belief in your own ability to change. It is not an arena where the unsure should go looking for absolutes and there are no permanent victories. It is about a living change, filled with the insecurities, the chaos, of our own personalities, and is always one step up, two steps back. The results of my work with Dr. Myers and my debt to him are at the heart of this book.

Whew. It's been an emotional roller coaster and I still have 100+ pages to go. Bruce is verbose!

To be continued...

What I’ve learned about Bruce Springsteen from “Born to Run” (a working list)
  • Bruce can really write! This book is 500 pages long but it moves with the brisk cheer and confidence of a seasoned storyteller plying his well-worn trade.
  • Bruce is very earnest and thoughtful but is able to laugh at himself, which is my favorite quality in people and the famous. He puts a lot of time and effort into figuring it all out but knows in the end we die anyway. For Bruce, as for all of us, it's about the journey, not the destination.
  • Bruce could write self-help books for those who are lost at sea in their own lives. Apart from rocking, his real talent might be turning lemons into lemonade. (I haven't reached the part where we deal with his depression. As of Chap. 24 we're still On the Way Up. He's only 24 years old.)
  • Bruce is a workhorse. Some of us may wonder how others reach the top of their game, and he comes right out and says it: you can never stop trying to be better. There's something to learn in every success and every failure.
  • Bruce looks for the best in others. I have yet to meet an asshole in the pages of this tome. I'm sure they exist but so far Bruce and I have let bygones be bygones.
  • Bruce looks for flaws in himself. When he finds one he attacks it with the methodical precision of a veteran carpenter operating a pair of needle-nose pliers, or a carpenter ant hauling a meatball up a mountain. Staunch!
  • This is not your typical rock star memoir: no drugs, no booze, not much sex. Bruce would likely have qualified as “a horndog” back in the day but seems like he was a gentleman about it (he seldom names names). Mostly he comes across as the CEO of Springsteen Enterprise, LLC, a small family concern operating out of a threadbare suburban garage where nobody is sure who is paying the gas and electricity bill this month. (I'm only up to the release of "Greetings from Asbury Park." So far there aren't a lot of clams to go around.)
  • Nobody flew on airplanes in the 1970s. When he visited his parents in California, he had to drive across the country with his bandmates (without knowing how to drive).
  • Once on the way back east they stopped on the side of the road in Arizona "for a piss break" and accidentally left the dog behind. They had to drive two hours back to find it. I'm heartened to know there's a little Clark Griswold in Bruce Springsteen and that he once rescued a dog from some miserable desert fate.
  • After a trip to Tijuana with his father: "Through using the same facilities at the apartment, all I left behind for my pops was a case of crabs I picked up somewhere along the way. Good-bye, son, thanks for the memories."
  • While auditioning singers for "The Bruce Springsteen Band" (pre-E Street): "I even spoke on the phone to a high school–age Patti Scialfa, dispensing the fatherly advice that this was a traveling gig and it'd be best for a young lady to stay in school." He was 22 years old at the time.
  • Bruce has a strangely formal-cum-casual writing style that mimics his conversational style—there's something in his sentence construction that tends to dodge left when you expect it to go right. He's fulsome and expansive and a little anachronistic; even the raunchy stories are relayed with the wry grin of a courtly gentleman shaking his head at his own youthful exploits.
  • Bruce is a good guy
  • Bruce is a square
  • be continued!
Let the service begin

Helena Fitzgerald on Bruce and dads who love Bruce:

Bruce doesn’t play Thunder Road until it’s almost midnight. Thunder Road is a perfect song, a thing in which one small stupid experience expands out to contain all the loud inarticulate things that make us human to one another. As sound it is irresistible; I want to grow up to be the part where the whole thing kicks in at 1:13 on Thunder Road. A few thousand Dads turn their faces to the light and roar about a nighttime drive a teenager in New Jersey once took with a girl named – of course – Mary. My feet hurt and I want to go home, but I’m swept along in it, in the sense that faith might not be a fiction, the sense that we can all for a few moments be dads, and that the big, simple, obvious things might also be the things that are good. 

From Born to Run, chapter 1 ("My Street"):

When it rains, the moisture in the humid air blankets our town with the smell of damp coffee grounds wafting in from the Nescafé factory at the town's eastern edge. I don't like coffee but I like that smell. It's comforting: it unites the town in a common sensory experience; it's good industry, like the roaring rug mill that fills our ears, brings work and signals our town's vitality. There is a place here—you can hear it, smell it—where people make lives, suffer pain, enjoy small pleasures, play baseball, die, make love, have kids, drink themselves drunk on spring nights and do their best to hold off the demons that seek to destroy us, our homes, our families, our town.
The person inside it

Michael Chabon has long been one of my favorite sentence makers. Take this, from Wonder Boys:

I intended to get involved with Sara Gaskell from the moment I saw her, to get involved with her articulate fingers, with the severe engineering of combs and barrettes that prevented her russet hair from falling to her hips, with her conversation that flowed in unnavigable oxbows between opposing shores of tenderness and ironical invective, with the smoke of her interminable cigarettes.

And this, from a new piece in GQ, on learning to understand his youngest son's love for fashion:

And though I couldn't fathom the impulse driving my kid to expose himself, every day, to mockery and verbal abuse at school, I admired him for not surrendering, and in time I came to understand the nature of my job as the father of this sartorial wild child: I didn't need to fathom Abe or his stylistic impulses; I needed only to let him go where they took him and, for as long as he needed me, to follow along behind.

And this:

When he woke up in the morning he would have changed his mind about something, or a sudden inspiration would strike. The look he had chosen for the Off-White preview had been tested and revised, in his mind and on his body, and it said whatever it was about himself that he had managed, at this early and still inarticulate moment in the history of his soul, to say. It would bear up to scrutiny. It had been designed to bear up to scrutiny. Indeed it had been designed to invite scrutiny, not of the look itself but of the person inside it. His clothes were not on the outside of his body; they were—for now—the outside of his body. They were the visible form taken by the way he chose to define himself.

It's all gorgeous and solicitous and dazzling: go read it! You've got time!

I pledge allegiance

I disagree with Mark Zuckerberg on almost everything. I think Facebook is the sarlacc from Return of the Jedi (“In its belly, you will find a new definition of pain and suffering as you are slowly digested over a…thousand years.”). I hate the “people you may know” prompts. I hate the good morning reminders (I wear a watch, Mark Zuckerberg!) and “on this day” memories (I have a memory, Mark Zuckerberg!). I hate the interests and the feeds and the pokes and the assumption that I would ever in any universe hand over my payment information, that I need Facebook scheduling events for me, that I need it wishing me happy birthday like some sad-ass robot assigned to the friendless. Every time I log in (of course I log in), I think, screw you and your pathetic ploy for world domination, Mark Zuckerberg!

So I was all ready to rag on this headline this morning (“Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan Pledge $3 Billion to Fighting Disease”), because Mark Zuckerberg can’t save the world from disease. Neither Mark Zuckerberg nor his wife nor his billions can solve everything. The arrogance! Who the fuck does he think he is? And then I stopped for a minute and collected my self-righteous cynicism and my lazy assumptions, and I thought about my favorite lines from my favorite Lorrie Moore story, and about this dear, sweet, beautiful girl, and I thought okay, Mark Zuckerberg. By all means use your billions for that. Yes and yes, and as fast as you possibly can. Go now, GO.

Cal’s son, Eugene, is seven and has cystic fibrosis. Eugene’s whole life is a race with medical research. “It’s not that I’m not for the arts,” says Cal. “You’re here; money for the arts brought you here. That’s wonderful. It’s wonderful to see you after all these years. It’s wonderful to fund the arts. It’s wonderful; you’re wonderful. The arts are so nice and wonderful. But really: I say, let’s give all the money, every last fucking dime, to science.”
— Lorrie Moore, "Dance in America," from Birds of America