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Practice of the Wild, Video

Practice of the Wild, Video

I’m lucky enough to have gotten to know both Gary Snyder and Jim Harrison over the years — I studied with Gary at UC Davis where we were also both involved in the Art of the Wild workshops at Squaw Valley, and Harrison, well, we have a bunch of friends in common, and he’s a neighbor here in Livingston. I actually first met Harrison when he came to Davis to do a reading and to visit Gary. Snyder was teaching a course in Zen and Chinese, Japanese and American poetry — it was one of those courses where several professors sat in, including Alan Williamson who used to gently chide us when we turned the Romantic poets into straw men for our arguments. Harrison came to visit, and then years later, when we ran into one another again here in Livingston, it’s that class that still stands out. That one course was worth all those years in grad school, all the hassle and pain and even the thousands of dollars I’m still paying off.

One reason Harrison came to Davis that spring was that he and Gary have been corresponding since 1965, about Zen, and poetry, and all the rest of it. Will Hearst had them down to his spectacular chunk of the California coastline and filmed them pretty much just walking around and talking to one another. The movie’s available on Amazon now, and it’s only $19 dollars, so I went ahead and bought a copy. And while I wish they’d gotten a little more of both writers’ humor in to the piece, it’s well worth investing in a copy if you’re interested in Zen, or the California school of poetry, or the challenges of representing nature in the written word, or Harrison or Snyder.

New Bookslut Column

New Bookslut Column

My new cookbook column is up at Bookslut. And weirdly enough, it’s on a similar topic as the Bourdain Techniques show I also wrote about this morning. Here’s a little excerpt:

There are a lot of cookbooks that wash up at my door these days, and while they’re all interesting, most of them are just full of recipes. Often, they’re interesting recipes, and many times they are recipes I’d like to eat if someone served them to me, but I’m probably not going to go out and source them just to cook one recipe. What I want are more cookbooks that teach me how to get away from recipes, and just to cook.

Lit News and Reading Roundup

Lit News and Reading Roundup

I’m sure no one will be surprised to learn that my major decorating theme around here is piles of books. I have bookshelves, and even a wee library in my basement office, but the books, they still seem to pile up.

So here are a few things I’ve been reading lately:

  • This terrific article about how the David Foster Wallace archives found a home at the Ransom Center in Texas.

    We had our first glimpse into Wallace’s creative process in 2005 with our acquisition of the papers of Don DeLillo. Unexpectedly, the archive included a small cache of letters between Wallace and DeLillo, a correspondence initiated by Wallace when he was struggling through his colossal novel, Infinite Jest. Wallace’s letters show a writer who was deliberate, funny, and often uncertain, but most clearly, they show a writer who took painstaking care with his art.

  • The Boston Globe has Adrienne Rich on Elizabeth Bishop’s The Complete Poems, 1927-1979. Of Bishop, Rich says:

    In particular I am concerned with her experience of outsiderhood, closely—though not exclusively—linked with the essential outsiderhood of a lesbian identity; and with how the outsider’s eye enables Bishop to perceive other kinds of outsiders and to identify, or try to identify, with them. I believe she deserves to be read and valued not only for her language and images, or for her personality within the poems, but for the way she locates herself in the world.

  • Meanwhile, the Times of London has Jeanette Winterson on Lyndall Gordon’s new book Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds. Winterson cuts right to the chase, as always:

    This most reclusive of poets, unmarried, virtually unpublished in her lifetime, knew who she was and fired that knowing through her poetry. Everyone had a stake in inventing her, including her brother, sister and sister-in-law. Her wild truthfulness was unsettling; it was easier to turn from the authenticity of the poetic blast towards a fictional person who could be offered up as a softer, simpler explanation.

  • Virginia Woolf Speaks

    Virginia Woolf Speaks

    A seven minute recording of Virginia Woolf (with thanks to Paul Lisicky for the re-tweet). Paul says she doesn’t sound like the Woolf in his head, but I’m afraid she sort of does sound like the Woolf in my head. Or some combo of this and Vanessa Redgrave’s Mrs. Dalloway.

    It took me a long time to come to love Woolf’s work. If you’re not a fan, I recommend the letters — she’s scathingly funny and an unrepentant gossip.

    MOBYLIVES » “Words, words, words” as Hamlet lamented…..

    Sunday Book Reviews

    Sunday Book Reviews

    It’s Sunday, which means the intertubes are full of book reviews. Here are a few links to things I’m thinking about or wanting to read.

    Patti Smith: Just Kids: I’ve been really riveted by the press for this one. I love Patti Smith — she’s so absolutely who she is and she’s so relentlessly followed her dreams.

    Amy Bloom, one of my all-time favorite writers has a new collection of short stories: Where the God of Love Hangs Out: Fiction and it’s reviewed in the LA Times.

    A couple of years ago I stumbled across Andrea Levy’s novel Small Island by chance and raved about it to everyone I know. She’s got a new book coming out in April, The Long Song. There’s also a terrific interview with her in this weekend’s Guardian UK in which she says:

    She can tell you, almost to the day, when she was injected with the creative adrenaline that produced Small ­Island – it was 1997, and she was judging the Orange prize.

    “I suddenly understood what fiction was for,” she says. “I had to read books that I wouldn’t have necessarily read. I had to read them well and I had to read them in a short space of time. Back to back. Annie Proulx and ­Margaret ­Atwood and Beryl Bainbridge and Anne Michaels – boom, boom, boom. And I started to realise what fiction could be. And I thought, wow! You can be ambitious, you can take on the world – you really can.”

    Poet Christopher Reid just won the Costas Prize for his collection, A Scattering, which is about losing his wife of many years. He’s interviewed at the Guardian, where this quote naturally struck me:

    Reid denies, though, that writing A Scattering was therapeutic. “The problem never goes away. Writing does perhaps help put your own feelings in order. Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel, ‘How do I know what I think until I set down what I say?’ That’s a very common experience: thoughts get form in the writing of them down. I was conscious of the different stages of grieving – that is what the book is about.”

    Something to Think About Before the State of the Union

    Something to Think About Before the State of the Union

    I haven’t read No Logo yet, but like Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy, it’s going on my list of interlibrary loan requests.

    I found this a couple of days ago, and in light of the forthcoming State of the Union, toward which I wish I was feeling less jaded, it’s an interesting take on what’s been frustrating some of us on the progressive side of the political spectrum. Enough with the task forces, and the pronouncements, and all of that. Just DO Something. Like ram health care through. I was thinking last night while driving down valley that we need an LBJ right now, someone not afraid to bust heads, and it occurred to me that perhaps that person was Hillary Clinton? Just a passing thought, and actually, I think she’s a fabulous Secretary of State … but I had a moment. Did I back the wrong candidate?

    Naomi Klein on how corporate branding has taken over America | Books | The Guardian

    This preference for symbols over substance, and this unwillingness to stick to a morally clear if unpopular course, is where Obama decisively parts ways with the transformative political movements from which he has borrowed so much (the pop-art posters from Che, his cadence from King, his “Yes We Can!” slogan from the migrant farmworkers – si se puede). These movements made unequivocal demands of existing power structures: for land distribution, higher wages, ambitious social programmes. Because of those high-cost demands, these movements had not only committed followers but serious enemies. Obama, in sharp contrast not just to social movements but to transformative presidents such as FDR, follows the logic of marketing: create an appealing canvas on which all are invited to project their deepest desires but stay vague enough not to lose anyone but the committed wing nuts (which, granted, constitute a not inconsequential demographic in the United States). Advertising Age had it right when it gushed that the Obama brand is “big enough to be anything to anyone yet had an intimate enough feel to inspire advocacy”. And then their highest compliment: “Mr Obama somehow managed to be both Coke and Honest Tea, both the megabrand with the global awareness and distribution network and the dark-horse, upstart niche player.”

    American Exceptionalism?

    American Exceptionalism?

    Elizabeth Gilbert is interviewed at Jacket Copy, the LA Times book blog, where among a number of interesting things, she has this to say:

    You said before that it’s a youthful impulse to think of oneself as exceptional. You’ve traveled a lot — is that also an American trait?

    Very. Very very very very. That’s something I’m seeing more and more, being married to somebody who is South American versus North American. He marvels at it. And he thinks, as many people do, it’s the best, and most shocking, thing about Americans. That sense of exceptionalism, and the honest and earnest belief that so many of us seem to share that we are in charge of what happens in our lives, that we can take agency and arrange it however we like. I think that people who live in cultures without quite so much privilege, opportunity or grandiosity have a little bit more respect for the workings of destiny, and the limitations that people can find themselves in through no fault of their own.

    While I thought Eat, Pray, Love was often a very good read, it drove me crazy. There was something so American about it, so suburban and privileged and unexamined. I mean, really, we could all get over our heartbreak if we could take a year off to go around the world. For me, the book embodied all of the worst elements of the postive thinking movement (see Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America for example).

    However, I’ve been sort of intrigued by Gilbert’s new book Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, and I found her TED talk on creativity really touching, and, although I hate to admit it, sort of inspirational.

    But where I started this thought, and what I want to circle around to, is that what annoyed me so much about Eat, Pray, Love is a quality I’ve seen in a few other memoirs, a strange sense of outrage that life has not turned out the way the protagonist thought it was going to. I think it’s what annoyed people about Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia (about Cleaving the less said the better), and that same whiny quality is what made me sputter at the Anne Hathaway character all through The Devil Wears Prada. There’s an odd unexamined aspect to the expectations these characters all have, that their lives will be special, that they’ll have beautiful things and live in cool places and that somehow they deserve to have it all work out the way they want to. That because they are white, and well-educated, and went to good schools, and were raised in nice suburbs by parents who provided a certain privileged standard of living, they should swan out into the world and find that life is what they want it to be. (To her credit, Gilbert’s crisis in Eat, Pray, Love is precipitated by getting all that and finding herself hysterical with unhappiness).

    Now, I hardly live the rough life, but I had such a weird and unstable upbringing, during which there was plenty of privilege but never any money at all — and when I went out into the world,  it was made clear to me that there would be no help forthcoming from my parents, so I find the these writers’ struggle with their own expectations deeply strange. But from the size of their sales figures, I’m in the minority there. By a lot. And I wonder at this. Do most people really feel so pissy about their lives? I mean, I’m pretty grateful. I have a house. I have a car. I have a garden and a nice partner and good friends. I’m going to be really broke again because of the job thing, but even that looks like an opportunity to me right now (when I’m not lying awake nights worrying).  But I wonder about what this sense of exceptionalism says about us as a nation. When did we start expecting so much? And why do we think we deserve so much bigger a piece of the pie than everyone else?