Marion Coutts – NBCC Award finalist

In the realm of good news this week, the artist Marion Coutts, author of The Iceberg and recent “What I’m Reading” participant, is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction for 2016. I’d recommend picking up The Iceberg as a nod to this honor, and if you order it online, checking in on what she’s been reading in the meantime.

  • John McIntyre

John Casey on James Salter and Breece Pancake

Earlier this year, University of Virginia Press released The Art of Fiction, a bound version of three lectures James Salter gave while serving as Kapnick Foundation Distinguished Writer-in-Residence for 2014. It’s an unfinished book – Salter meant to flesh out what he’d written, probably expand on some of the ideas and perhaps look in other direction, in other essays, to offer a more complete set of thoughts on the subject. It was a treat for me all the same; it explores some of Salter’s ideas and enthusiasms in depth, and I’ve never yet gotten my fill of that. The additional pleasure: a lengthy introductory essay by John Casey. In the essay, Casey is forthright and knowing. He calls Salter “a generous man, but precise in his generosity,” and later notes, of the difficulty of becoming a writer, “It takes a lot of miles to run a race.”

Casey would know. He’s put in the miles, and he’s still running. Spartina earned him the National Book Award in 1989. He revisited Dick Pierce 21 years later, for 2010’s Compass Rose. But if you’re unfamiliar with Casey and still skeptical, an ideal place to start is his essay on Breece D’J Pancake. It’s naturally a sort of tribute and a sort of appraisal, but more meaningfully, it’s a talented writer at the height of his powers, attempting to make sense of the loss of an immensely gifted protege. Casey acknowledges that theirs was an unconventional relationship in this regard:

He was about to turn twenty-seven when he died; I was forty. But half the time he treated me (and I treated him) as if I were his kid brother. The other half of the time he treated me like a senior officer in some ancient army of his imagination. I knew a few things, had some rank, but he felt surely that I needed some looking after. There was more to it than that of course. More than these cartoon panels can show, he was a powerful, restless friend.

The essay in full is here, on Casey’s site. Pancake’s lone book of stories is here. Read it, then read the others, then pick up some books.

– John McIntyre

Some Small, Good Things

There’s a great Raymond Carver story called “A Small, Good Thing.” The stakes in it feel a lot higher than the small, good things I’m about to mention, but these made it a good week on some level all the same.

1) John Andrew Fredrick has a website. This goes firmly in the Long Overdue column. Hard to believe there wasn’t more of a web presence for a man with several novels and nearly two dozen albums to his credit. You can check out his artwork as well. And if that’s not enough, I interviewed him for the LA Review of Books earlier this year.

2) Dwight Garner writes about Charles Wright in the Times, once again. This is the second time in recent months, and I’m thrilled he’s using his platform to nudge readers toward a disgracefully overlooked writer. Of course, I wrote about Wright for Brick once upon a time.

And it’s time for a long weekend. Believe me when I say, you could do worse for company than John Andrew Fredrick and Charles Wright.

– John

The Coolest Way to Paint Your Tiny Kitchen on a Budget

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My friend and former student Christy Williams painted her kitchen. You can read about it and look at some great photos of the end product at The Kitchn. I realize this isn’t the usual thing I’d post here, but 1) she did a great job (it’s funny and honest and informative), and 2) it’s her first of what I hope will be many publications. You could also go check out her blog, Getting Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable. Yeah, you should definitely do that.

– John

Michel Tournier, 1924-2016

I haven’t read Michel Tournier in some time [years], though I was once enamored of The Erl King and Friday, his retelling of Robinson Crusoe.

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A while back, I picked up a later novel, The Midnight Love Feast, with hopes of getting reacquainted, but I hadn’t yet done so when I learned of his death.

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His obituary in the Times describes him as a failed philosopher, but there is a sustained thoughtfulness in his work, and a strain of irreverence that rewards the reader at unexpected moments.  Now is as good a time as any to make his acquaintance, or renew acquaintances as a reader. 

 

The Young Desire It

Kenneth “Seaforth” Mackenzie’s novel The Young Desire It was first published in 1937 by Jonathan Cape. The book was awarded the Australian Literature Society’s gold medal, but three decades later, he’d slipped into obscurity. A special 1966 issue of Westerly notes “how difficult it is to procure his work at all.” The Young Desire It, the editors note, had just appeared in a new edition from Angus & Robertson. The book’s fate still wasn’t secure, but another fifty years on, it’s part of Text Publishing’s Classics series.

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Mackenzie started writing the novel at the age of 17. It was published when he was twenty-three. I was going to mention his precociousness as a mate to Raymond Radiguet’s, but of course David Malouf’s introductory essay beat me to it. Rest assured, neither the prize committee nor the editorial staff at Text graded the novel on a curve. Malouf calls the book “a miracle, not least in that its wholeness, its freshness and clarity, seem magically untouched by the damage that casts a shadow over Mackenzie’s later years.” Of those later years, more to come.

The Young Desire It conjures hints of William Maxwell’s novel The Folded Leaf in its open-hearted guilelessness, and Tobias Wolff’s Old School for its illustration of how the hothouse environment of a boarding school inflates the significance of small events. It’s worth noting that Mackenzie’s work predates both, whether they knew of him or not.

The lushness of Mackenzie’s prose reveals a novelist with the sensibility of a poet. Take Charles’s discovery of Margaret, who takes over much of his thoughts from that time forward:

“It was a girl, a stranger. She had evidently not seen him, for she was stooping to pull up clothes that had slipped as she ran, and he could see her chest heaving when she straightened herself up again. Her legs were bare, and she had no shoes on; he could see the insteps of her feet in the leaves that sank beneath her. That was why she had been so quiet. When she bent down two plaits of hair, as thick as ropes but softly alive, slid over her shoulders and hung each side of her face, which he could not clearly see. His breath was coming more comfortably; he turned himself round, and sat down quietly by his tree trunk to watch, aware of no privacy save his own…To him sitting there, the mystery of a human being, particularly a woman, who is unconscious of any watching eyes and has abandoned all protective postures, came as unexpectedly and enchantingly as the telling of some romantic secret.”

He was very young when he wrote The Young Desire It, but even within those first, fevered longings, Mackenzie emphasized also subtle shadings of attraction.

The novel follows young Charles Fox during his time at an Australian boarding school. Upon his arrival, Mr. Jolly, the headmaster, tells him, ‘Now you listen to me, old chap. We know nothing about you here. Your job is to teach us, just as ours is to teach you. You teach us to like and respect you; we’ll teach you something above all price.’ Mackenzie’s debut is a roman à clef in large part, though it matters little which experiences cut closest to Mackenzie’s lived experience. Charles is callow but resilient, and Mackenzie captures the un-diluted intensity of those years in a way it’s hard to imagine he would’ve managed to years later.  Fox experiences a difficult adjustment to life at school though, we are given to understand, nothing truly unusual in duration or scope. He attracts the interest of Penforth, one of the masters at the school. Their halting, frustrated dealings resolve with Charles drawn to Margaret, a young woman from a neighboring farm, and Penforth at a loss. From there, Charles comes to know the sensual world in ways he hasn’t yet to that point. To call it an awakening may sound lame and hackneyed, but to Mackenzie’s credit, that’s just what unfolds, in a deliberate, natural manner. Neither is the progress Mackenzie charts wholly, or even mostly, sexual. After their early assignations, the two return to their respective schools and Charles thinks of all the new and previously forbidden knowledge he now holds:

“With such knowledge of her, the smallest yet, perhaps, the choicest he could have known, his mind in sleep or day dreaming, during a noisy morning recess or under the meaningless glory of a service in Chapel, composed ecstasies whose frailty and unworldliness were mercifully kept from him. In a rare and lonely way he was learning, as those others were learning, with surprise and happiness, to live.”

This is not the work of a writer we should forget, and it’s pleasing to imagine Mackenzie enjoying a sort of renaissance. The singer-songwriter Stu Larsen included a song entitled “Seaforth Mackenzie” on his 2011 EP, Ryeford.

Mackenzie’s final novel, The Refuge, is also available from Text Classics. I have a weakness for writers whose entire body of work would fit neatly in an omnibus volume, and in a pinch, Mackenzie would fit the profile.

Mackenzie died at forty-one, drowned in Tallong Creek under, it’s said, mysterious circumstances. He’d struggled with poor health and alcoholism in his later years.  “A fine talent was laid to waste,” the writer Diane Davis writes of Mackenzie’s death. The Young Desire It is testament to that judgment, and one of the truly indelible novels of youth.

– John McIntyre

Alan Cheuse, 1940-2015

Sad news. The writer Alan Cheuse died last Friday in Santa Cruz, CA. Cheuse was probably best known as NPR’s Book Critic, a role in which he excelled.

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The New York Times refers to him as a “late blooming writer” due to the fact that he published his first short story just ahead of his 40th birthday, though more and more I tend to think that type of distinction a curiosity than a measure of a writer’s quality. I had a soft spot for Cheuse thanks to his kind words about Memorable Days, which he listed among his best books of 2010 in an NPR spot. That was due more to his admiration of James Salter than my part, I’m sure, but I was pleased all the same that someone as discerning as Cheuse saw what I saw in the letters that make up the book. Visit this wonderful collection of media, everything from his book reviews to a short story to a number of podcasts, on his homepage. His death is a loss to readers and writers everywhere.

— John McIntyre

Iain Banks has died

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I started reading Iain Banks upon learning he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. His work was a revelation, a welcome addition to my bookshelves. The news comes today that he’s passed away, three months after the diagnosis. It’s a small tribute, insufficient probably, but here’s a link to a short piece I wrote on the experience of reading Banks, for The Millions.

http://www.themillions.com/2013/04/losing-iain-banks.html

Small Press Summer

Starting next week, I’m devoting one week each to a number of small (smallish?) presses whose work I’ve come to admire. I’ll kick off with John Andrew Fredrick‘s novel of a young man diving into the 90s indie rock scene in LA, courtesy of Verse Chorus Press.

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After that, Australian crime fiction from Dark Passage, a Verse Chorus imprint.

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Then it’s on to a couple of dark, brilliant novels by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, translated by George Szirtes and published by New Directions.

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Later, I’ll look at two of Jaimy Gordon‘s books, along with a couple of other offerings, from McPherson & Co.

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I’ll also delve into Derek Raymond’s Factory novels, courtesy of Melville House.

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Time and resources allowing, I’ll try to include work from Dalkey Archive and Graywolf Press as well. I doubt there’s much need to justify this project, especially given the further consolidation of the major presses this past spring. There are a number of fine smaller presses, producing work of great merit. I can’t begin to address them all, but I hope this small sample gives an indication of what’s available apart from releases by the big five/six American publishers.

What Their Mothers Gave Them

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The anthology is a strange beast, so often uneven or unremarkable, and destined for a short shelf life. This, like all rules, has exceptions. One notable example is Mentors, Muses and Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives, edited by the writer Elizabeth Benedict. Among its charms: “Growing Pains” by Caryl Phillips, which would be worth the price of admission in itself, as well as reflections and mini-memoirs from Z.Z. Packer, Edmund White, John Casey, Denis Johnson and a cast of over two-dozen others. It seems Benedict has some uncanny knack for choosing subject matter which makes an anthology worth revisiting. Her new undertaking, which again hits that mark, is What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-One Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most. She also appears gifted at charming and cajoling a large number of very good writers to give of themselves in a very forthright manner. “Singly,” Benedict writes in her Introduction, “each piece is a gem to me: a gathering in of memory, affection, and gratitude, however tormented the relationships once were.” Benedict’s pride is not misplaced; the collection is indeed rich and varied, and the timing of its release (just ahead of Mother’s Day) couldn’t be better.

The premise of this collection may inspire wariness in some readers. It could easily tread a Chicken Soup for the Soul type path, trying only to score cheap tears and shaming anyone who knows a person who keeps it on the shelf. Instead, we get Mary Gordon, recounting her reaction to the question and noting that, “My first response was,“My mother never gave me any gifts.” These words were followed by a generous helping of self-pity: that sickish sweet, oily syrup that somehow encourages the tongue and the palate to demand more and more. I try to stay away from its allure, and so, when I feel it coming on (particularly when its source is my mother), I seek alternatives.” In short, these are essays by women unafraid to turn a critical eye on themselves. Better still, they often do so with humor. Elissa Schappell’s mother gave her a scratched, worn cake pan. Her mother was an artist but not a particularly skilled baker. Schappell offers a list of childhood impressions of her mother’s baking handiwork too extensive and specific to be mere embroidery:

Growing up I assumed that every coconut cake leaned forward like a stout opera singer mid- aria, that every chocolate layer cake was propped up or held together with a series of girderlike toothpicks. It never occurred to me that the ring of pachysandra around the Black Forest cake disguised the fact that there was a hole in the side. I didn’t realize that you didn’t routinely cut the bottom off a cake. Wasn’t that just part of the process? I believed there were cookies that were meant to be overbaked, because they were best that way with tea, and others underbaked because they were fun to mold with your hands.

Schappell is a writer but, by her own admission, not a world-beater in the baking category either. Her mother has also taught her not to be cowed by this shortcoming:

“It’s not a problem,” my mother said when I called her in tears. “Just cut off the bottom.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Yes you can. You just tell your guests, ‘That’s how they do it in France.’ ”

My mother laughed, as though she’d said this a million times.

The writer Sheila Kohler’s response is elegant and searching, as befits her gift. “It could be,” she writes, “that the most precious gift I inherited from my mother, the one which led me to become a writer, was not an object but her silence about so much of her life.” A number of the writers here characterize their mothers with remarkable depth and clarity in just a few lines. In “Midnight Typing,” Luanne Rice writes that,

My favorite gift from my mother is a small pen- and- ink drawing she made on a folded- up piece of typing paper. It depicts Gelsey, her ragamuffin Scottie, along with the words, in shaky handwriting, “Beware of wee ferocious beastie.” She’d taped it to the kitchen door of her cottage on the rocks above Long Island Sound, where she was dying of a brain tumor. The sign was quintessential Lucille Arrigan Rice. It managed to be endearing, self- protective, and manipulative all at once. Translated, it said, “Don’t bother me, but if you do, don’t let the dog out, and please think I’m loveable.”

The novelist Elinor Lipman’s portrait of her mother is a little masterpiece:

First, what you should know about Julia Lipman: She was single until she was thirty- six, but answered “twenty- three” when her daughters asked how old she was when she married. She gave birth to me, the second child, six weeks before she turned forty-one. My birth certificate lists “mother’s age” as thirty-four, and it wasn’t a clerical error. She was dainty. She wore housedresses and aprons and never flats. Her bed slippers were mules and her French twist required hairpins. She used Pond’s cold cream on her face, Desert Flower lotion on her hands, and didn’t like drinking water out of mugs. She loved the Red Sox, and mild-mannered British mysteries — Ngaio Marsh a favorite — in which crimes were solved calmly. She wore Estée Lauder perfume and never the colors red, pink, or purple. She did not drive a car, play tennis or golf, ride a bicycle, or know how to swim, nor did I ever see her pitch, throw, or catch a ball. She was a queen of arts and crafts: a Brownie leader, a Lowell Girls Club fixture for twenty-five years, sewer, knitter, wallpaperer, gardener extraordinaire.

And the gifts! The gifts run the gamut, from a much-sought-after copy of Sylvia Plath’s Journals (not, in itself, as precious as the writer imagined), to an array of nail polishes, to a photograph which was thought lost for many years, and those are just examples of the literal, physical variety. But I don’t want to give away too much, not more than a good taste, just enough to create a hunger for more. Not a single response here is simple or tossed-off. These are carefully considered responses from women who happen also to be very accomplished writers. Or very accomplished writers who also happen to be women. Perhaps next time around, Benedict can pose this question to a group of male writers. Yes, the direct and obvious counterpart would be a book of essays by male writers on what their fathers gave them. But I would be more curious about a group of men, reflecting on what they cherish from their relationship with the first meaningful woman in their lives.

Reading What My Mother Gave Me (as a male reader, no less) brought to mind the recent Book Riot piece which debated the writer Meg Wolitzer’s observation that men don’t read women writers. The conclusion? Many men don’t, not frequently enough, and in many cases, never. The question was largely concerned with works of fiction, though it seems likely that the same tendencies apply to works of poetry or memoir. No doubt this is a dangerous generalization, and many male readers provide a place of honor on their reading lists to women writers. No doubt it’s also true that many men do the opposite, for one reason or another. I won’t bother enumerating all the ways in which this is a shame, and all that those readers are missing out on, if they forego work by women writers. This is not to say that What My Mother Gave Me is the starting place a lot of men would choose to explore writing by women. However, we’re less than two weeks from a Mother’s Day. That’s plenty of time, gentlemen, to buy it and give it a read before handing it over on May 12. Or better yet, buy two (the magic words every writer wants to see in a review). Mark up your own copy and discuss the essays with your mother after she’s read them. That, I dare say, is a gift she’ll never forget.

– John McIntyre