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Category: Thinking

Back to Work …

Back to Work …

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Five weeks ago I had reconstructive surgery on my left ankle, and I thought that being laid up would be sort of useful. That I’d get a lot of work done. I’d read books! I’d get back to the one I’m writing! I’d knit (I did knit …).

The truth is that I seem to have spent most of the past five weeks fucking around on the internet. And complaining about not being able to do anything. I got nothing useful done.

And so, I finally had to face up to the fact that I needed a new planning regime. I have not been using my 3 days off work productively, and as one does, I’ve been watching good ideas float off into the ether, and things I meant to write about drift off, happily unmolested by my attempts to corral them into meaning.

So I pulled out the planner again, and went back to a method that’s worked for me in the past. It’s nothing fancy — just identifying at the beginning of each year, month, and week what you intend to accomplish, then keeping track of the steps you take to make those things happen. And re-evaluating at the beginning of each week and month. Basic stuff. Keeping on track stuff. Making yourself account for your time so that if you do do something as ridiculous as spend an entire afternoon following rabbits down Twitter holes (or looking at knitting on Instagram) you at least have to own up to it.

We’re just about at the vernal equinox, which I think of as a sort of new year, so here’s to resolutions, and to getting more things accomplished, and to breaking loose from my drifty, pleasant, but ultimately unproductive state …

“Paging Tom Joad.”

“Paging Tom Joad.”

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cKOvqXoWB7s

I’ve been watching the Wisconsin protests pretty obsessively. I about half grew up in Wisconsin, between staying at my aunt’s house in Cambridge, living in Madison in middle school, and going to college at Beloit and I’ve been deeply encouraged by the good people of Wisconsin, rising up when it became clear that the corporate overlords just want to take everything.

I’m working on a post on the other blog about this pernicious idea that people who work with their hands are not as intelligent as people who write or otherwise work in the knowledge industries (academia, writing, television, etc …). I sort of grew up with the opposite idea, that what really distinguished a person was being able to do something concrete in the physical universe (and hence, one of my biggest sources of writers block is losing faith that it means anything at all, these hashmarks on pieces of paper).

So go give a listen to Tony Schultz, and forward this video to anyone you know who thinks farmers are “dumb rednecks.” This guy is smart in the deepest, oldest agrarian tradition, and his passion is inspiring.

Shitty First Drafts

Shitty First Drafts

With apologies to Anne Lamott, here’s what I’ve taken to doing with novel drafts. My local feed store ran out of wood shavings, so I’ve been using shredded office paper inside the coop.

I don’t know why I didn’t do this before? Maybe because in Livingston’s famous winds this can sometimes get messy, but the girls really really like the shredded paper. They’ve been making little nests with it.

And this is one way to keep oneself from getting too precious about “the work.”

CookBookSlut vs. the Economy

CookBookSlut vs. the Economy

My new CookBookSlut column is up over at Bookslut — I take on cooking and urban homesteading as one approach to the continuing implosion of the economy and the unabating high unemployment rate. I mean, if we’re not going to have jobs anymore, we’d better learn to grow our own and cook our own and take care of our own. (Rant alert, btw.)

Here’s a list of the terrific books I discuss this month:

The Two-Book Curse?

The Two-Book Curse?

A long weekend, a big snowstorm, my sweetheart’s delightful cabin (available as a vacation rental!) with a woodstove and snow outside and two deer in the yard in the morning, which meant I had a lovely, unplugged stretch of time to catch up on some reading.

Somehow I’d missed Nicole Krauss these past couple of years, probably because I had been dismissive of the Brooklyn writers. They seemed like emo music to me, one of those things I’m too old to find charming, or deep, or meaningful. But there was a New Yorker story I liked, and her new book, Great House, was getting such good reviews that a few weeks ago I got The History of Love out of the library. While I didn’t think it was as groundbreaking as the reviews and the gushing articles about Krauss and her husband, Jonathan Safran Foer, the “golden couple” of the New York writing scene, would have one believe, it seemed to me like a very fine novel — there were interesting characters, the sentences are lovely without being show-offy, and even the inevitable coincidental connections between the seemingly-disparate characters were handled with grace. Like I said, I thought it was a very fine novel.

And so, I put myself on the list for Great House, and even tucked it in my backpack for the ski up the hill to the cabin. Again, it is beautifully written by an author who clearly shows great talent. Again, there are seemingly-disconnected characters who turn out to have connections between them, although this time I found that structure less delightful. Again, there are writers, and writing which connects these characters, as does their Jewishness (which I found far less irritating than the Dedication to Art aspect). The Holocaust looms once more, but the characters are all Jews, so that was far less irritating than was the fact that all of these characters are writers, except for the ones who supportively orbit the writers, or those who have dedicated their pale lives to some other art, like playing the piano. (The exception is Aaron, the furious father of the mysterious Dov, whose life might be ruined by the fact that he didn’t become a writer? Although to me, becoming a successful London judge sounds more interesting, but that’s a profession Dov mysteriously quits when his mother dies in order to return to Jeruselem and languish in his childhood bedroom, much to the concern and irritation of his father, and of this reader).

The book was lovely, it was beautifully written, but it made me want to shake Krauss, made me want to tell her to go get a job and to write about something, anything, other than writers. This is the second book in which writers and books and writing are the only subject. Enough already. Maybe it’s that I live in a town rotten with writers, I know plenty of writers and believe me, most of them are not romantic figures in the least (especially the ones who think they are). The “romance” and “mystery” of the two, count them, two women writers in this book who continually shut out their spouses, who stop arguments in mid shout and stalk silently, remotely, coolly, off to the mysterious and enormous and magnetic desk at the center of this tale wore thin early in the story. Krauss is very young. She has only ever been a writer (except for being a daughter, a wife and a mother). She is married to a writer. I get the sense she only hangs around with writers. And it is clear from her recent, and widely-mocked blurb for Daniel Grossman’s new book that she is a true Romantic when it comes to writing, one who believes that it is a High Calling, and that Art is something worth dedicating one’s life to.

All of which makes me want to run off and read someone bracing, like Anne Dillard or Margaret Atwood. Years ago, when I was in grad school at UC Davis, Atwood came for the standard weekend of lectures and meetings with students. I’ll never forget her chastising the graduate students who were studying her work. “You’re all clearly very bright,” she said. “You should go do something more useful with those brains than this. Go figure out how to stop global warming or something.” They were crestfallen, but I always thought she was right.

That these hermetically sealed books about upper-class white people in America keep getting praised to the high heavens is an ongoing concern of mine. While the hype surrounding her book is no more Krauss’s doing than the circus Jonathan Franzen seems to unleash with each book is his own, I do find it problematic that books about “white people’s problems” — the difficulty of creating Art, the woes of suburban life and marriage — are the ones being chosen by publishers, then hyped by them and every reviewer out there. I don’t want to read books about the people just like me (or like the me I might have been had I not left my publishing job in NYC in 1988, or like the me I might have been had I gotten an academic job after grad school). I want to read books about people who struggle with something real — who worry about their jobs, and putting a roof over their heads, and who are, perhaps up against something terrifyingly real like the death of their loved ones. Which means someone will probably complain in my next book about the body count, and that I keep killing people off for cheap effect. We all have our personal obsessions, and that Krauss’s are writing and Art and Jewishness are less worrisome to me than the idea that a two-book contract, and the success of her first book, might have led to pressure to “do it again” — the sort of pressure that leads to a second book which  contains so many of the pleasures of the first one that this reader, at least, became frustrated. Krauss is clearly very talented. Now I just want to see her stretch that talent, and do something new with it.

“What kind of a wuss was Woolf?”

“What kind of a wuss was Woolf?”

Run, do not walk (well, in internet terms) to the London Review of Books and read Hilary Mantel’s Diary of being ill. It’s by turns hilarious and hallucinogenic and scary (and probably not for the squeamish) and brilliant. Especially her take on Virgina Woolf’s On Being Ill. (Although I feel a little bad for enjoying her ad feminiem attack on Woolf, since it wasn’t until I became chronically ill in grad school that Woolf’s work started to open up for me.) Nonetheless, I loved this essay.

Small Town Voting

Small Town Voting

So I went off to vote this morning — we vote at the fairgrounds here, and as always, the act of voting restored some of my confidence in the American people. There we all were — ranchers in their muck boots, my fellow Democratic activists, the guy who fixes boilers, and next to me, a very very very old woman (who said “God Bless You” to the election worker as she handed over her ballot to go through the counting machine). It was, to say the least, a diverse group.

And yet, was there shouting? Was there tension? Were people giving dirty looks at those they thought might not be “real” Americans? (And this *is* a town where one of the people running for Sherriff is involved with a cult who disavows the “sovereignty” of the Federal and State governments).

Nope. There was a lot of nodding, and holding of the front door, and exchanges of “Good Morning.” Sort of like Jon Stewart’s Holland Tunnel analogy the other day — first you go, then I go, then he goes. The media is telling us we’re all riven and screaming at one another, when in reality, we’re all just doing what we’ve always been doing — working, taking our kids to school, doing our civic duty.

And just because I love this piece so much — here’s my friend Scott McMillion, with a video essay he did for PBS about voting in Livingston: Voting in Small Town Montana

On “Unlikeable” Characters

On “Unlikeable” Characters

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the subject of fictional characters and “likeability.” Probably because I’m writing again, but also because it’s a topic dear to my heart, since so many readers found Anne, in Place Last Seen deeply unlikeable (go take a look at the Amazon reviews if you don’t believe me). Patrick and I used to laugh about it, because we both thought I’d pulled my punches and had made her sympathetic, or at least much more sympathetic than in her earlier incarnations. I wasn’t entirely surprised when she was greeted with a hail of criticism because I’d already weathered a couple of years of graduate workshop populated by writers doing Katherine Mansfield-esque odes to their idyllic childhoods, and whose consistent response to Anne was “no mother would do that!” (A response that indicated to me that I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing with the character.) At any rate, I didn’t want her to be “normal” — what would be the interest in that, either as a writer, or as a reader? I wanted her to be odd; to be Anne.

So I was Googling around when I came across Emily St. John Mandel’s terrific essay at The Millions, In Praise of Unlikeable Characters, an essay that caused me to fire up the Kindle and download Bad Marie. It’s a terrific read, which is such a pleasure these days. a book that really sucks you in and in which many things actually happen, and that has characters in whom you become deeply invested. Marie does indeed do some very “bad” things, but Marcy Dermansky does such a good job writing her from the inside that you get sucked in, and nod along in agreement that of course, Marie’s is the only logical course of action. She makes her sympathetic without necessarily making her likeable. You always doubt her — especially since so many other characters tell her how bad she is. It is that seed of doubt that lurks, no matter how much one might be rooting for Marie that that made me feel the book pulled it’s big punch. I won’t give away the plot point, but there is a moment very late in the book, after you’ve seen Marie act in many impulsive and unwise and even vengeful ways, where she comes right to the precipice of doing something truly monstrous. And while the naive reader part of me, the part of me that really does believe somehow that characters are people, and who comes to care about them (the part of me that still feels guilty for breaking Jonathan’s leg for plot purposes at the end of Place Last Seen), while that reader was glad that Marie didn’t go over the precipice, the cold-hearted novelist in me wishes she had.

No one writes books like that any more. Books that take a character all the way over the edge. (Or perhaps no one who writes like that can get them published, another discussion altogether.) I was trolling around in the Paris Review’s newly-opened interview archives and in David Mitchell’s interview he talks about reading Nabokov, and trying to figure out what he was up to:

I used to read Nabokov with an X-ray on, trying to map the circuitry of what he was doing and how he was doing it. Lolita is an act of seduction. This is a lovable rogue, you think, this Humbert Humbert. How interesting life is in his company! Then there’s a place where, toward the end—and this is one of the most chilling scenes in English literature—he realizes that Lolita has lost her magic. She’s not the pliant young fairy she once was. But it’ll be OK, he thinks, because I can have a daughter through her and start all over again. That’s when you know you’ve really been had here—this Humbert figure is a damaged, dangerous piece of work, and you’ve been riding along happily in his car for a hundred and fifty pages.

There’s a corresponding problem to the “likeability” problem (and not that all women must have pink high-heeled shoes on the covers of their books) and that’s the flip side, the total monster — at it’s best, you get someone like Dostoyevski, at it’s worst, you get Hannibal Lecter or American Psycho, books that are only about an unredeemable character, that plumb the depths and claim, by doing so, to be breaking new ground. Those aren’t the unlikeable characters I’m interested in — the ones I’m interested in are like that family member that you can never figure out, or the friend about whom you continually find yourself saying “how could she do that?” Someone who seems just like us, but who isn’t — and it’s that difference that makes it interesting. What makes someone like that tick? Are they really “bad”? I love the exploration of that murky ground, and I especially like it when the author resists the urge to “heal” the character, resists the therapeutic narrative of our age. They’re hard to find though, which is why I find myself turning back to Elizabeth Bowen, or Mavis Gallant, writers who had their gimlet eyes firmly fixed on the flaws of human character.

So readers, in the comments, tell us who your favorite “unlikeable” character is, and why?

Best Food Writing 2010

Best Food Writing 2010


Look what the UPS man brought me yesterday — It’s always a surprise to see something you’ve written in an actual book, one that was produced by someone else, and has managed to independently make its way into a store. The first time I saw Place Last Seen in a store I had an inexplicable urge to scoop them all up and take them home, as though it was somehow dangerous for my wee book to be out there all by itself.
And then of course, Patrick picked up a copy in each hand and started waving them overhead while exclaiming that “the author is right here! I nearly died from embarassment.

So last night I’m reading the introduction to Best Food Writing 2010 when I come across this sentence:

“But to really judge the state of food writing today, just look at how many new voices are in this year’s book. A handful of these, of course, are topnotch writers known for ficiton or other nonfiction subjects, who only occasionally turn their attention to food–writers like Adam Gopnik, Charlotte Freeman, Wright Thompson and Jonathan Safran Foer.”

I squealed and ran into the living room where Chuck looked up and said “Are you okay? You sounded like you stepped on a wasp or something.”

The Wire, The Novel and the MacArthur Grant

The Wire, The Novel and the MacArthur Grant

There’s a lot of chatter this morning about David Simon winning the MacArthur Foundation Grant. While it’s true that he’s hardly a starving artist, and hence there’s griping about whether or not he needs the money, I think it’s a fascinating choice on their part. Simon, along with his many collaborators including novelists like Dennis Lehane, Richard Powers and George Pellacanos, has in some crucial way reinvented the novel as a multi-part, long form television show. Or maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s the other way around, maybe he’s just plain old reinvented the long-form television show. All I can say is that The Wire, which I missed during the years it was on the air, is the most astonishing and rewarding and exciting thing I’ve ever seen on television.

I’ve been watching it all summer on DVD and chief among the many merits of watching the series this way is that without the interruption of seasons, one can really see the narrative arcs play out. This isn’t network television, and so the shape of the narrative is much closer to the shape of a great novel than it is a television show. Ideas play out over a long time. Motifs crop up, disappear, and come back. Characters have time to disappear for a while (I’m in the middle of season 4, when McNulty is almost entirely in the background) then reappear without the sort of idiotic explanatory crap a network show would stick in there because they assume we’re too stupid to remember who someone is if we haven’t seen them in the last five minutes. It’s a show that doesn’t assume we’re morons, that believes we’ll stick around in a world that is almost entirely black, that we’ll care not only about the scrappy bunch of eight graders who are still kind of cute, but about killers like Omar and Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale and about the cannibalistic mothers who groom their boys to go out and take their places on those corners because that’s the only vision they have of what it means to be a man.

It’s also a show that deals with work. As Lorrie Moore said in this terrific piece in the New York Review of Books (which I was reading last night when the news came in about Simon),

“The most intriguing phrase Simon has used regarding The Wire is that it is about ‘the death of work.’ By this he means not just the loss of jobs, thought there certainly is that, but the loss of integrity within our systems of work, the ‘juking of stats,’ the speaking of truth to power having been replaced with speaking what is most self-serving and pleasing to the higher-ups. … in the world of The Wire almost everyone who tries to buck the system and do right is punished, often severely and grotesquely and heartbreakingly. Accomodation is survival at the most basic level, although it is also lethal to the soul.

One of the issues that the sweetheart and I have been discussing all summer long as story after story spews forth from the mainstream press about the “end of the recession” and the “jobless recovery” is the absolute stream of bullshit that is any actual discussion of the economy. We’re each of us in slightly odd positions in this economy, both insiders and outsiders — he has an Ivy League degree and has spent his career building houses, while I have the full string of graduate degrees, wanted to be an artist, and wound up spending a decade in corporate America, a place I never expected to be. We’re both pretty conservative, financially — we’ve mostly lived below our means, saved some money, don’t have a lot of debt, and bought houses we could afford to pay off. Neither of us ever wanted to get rich, but we’ve always worked, and have watched over the past decade or so as the boom-and-bust mentality of what passed for economic policy consistently screwed over those of us among the vast majority of Americans who don’t want to get rich, but who just want to work, have a house, food on the table, and maybe put a little bit away for a rainy day.

What strikes me about The Wire is that it’s one of the only portraits I’ve ever seen on television of how hard it is to just get by in America. The cops, the dockworkers, the teachers, the government workers — they’re all trying to stick it out, keep roofs over their heads, food on the table, sneakers on the kids feet. The Wire is the only show I’ve ever seen on television that shows the lived experience of what happened as we all stood by and watched while factories were dismantled and jobs were outsourced and schools and government and unions and the newspapers were gutted from the inside. Sure, for some of us, our 401ks went up as these big corporations posted profits that were based on getting rid of all their employees, but they weren’t real profits, they were short-term paper profits (or was it just the ponzi-scheme effect of shifting everyone’s retirement from pensions to 401ks?). We’ve all spent the past thirty years living for short term quarterly numbers with absolute disregard for the means by which we were meeting those numbers. And now, we’re all standing around in the aftermath, like Svobodka in Season 2, looking at the docks and the closed factories and the graineries and lamenting the fact that we used to make things in this country.

The corrosive contempt for the working class, the continual griping that “they’re” making too much money, the pissing and moaning about unions with the audacity to negotiate for health insurance all somehow misses the point. If there are no jobs, then no one is making any money, and if no one is making any money, they’re not going to be able to spend it on the consumer goods that drive the economy. A solid and healthy middle class is the sign of an economy in good shape, and somehow, we’ve decided in America that we’re going to let the richest 1% take 24% of the wealth of the nation, let the richest 20% take a full 85% of the nation’s wealth. I’ve never understood why people aren’t more angry about this, and all I can figure is that somehow everyone has decided that they’re going to win the wealth lottery — maybe this is what’s behind the insane proliferation of “reality” shows about people who have neither talent nor accomplishment. A loss of integrity regarding work indeed.

And so, I think it’s brilliant that Simon won the MacArthur grant. Clearly the committee thinks he’s saying something crucial about the state of our society, and is using a medium that is too often gutted from the inside by it’s own reliance on formula and cliche in order to do this. He’s given voice to a whole section of American society that is too often hidden or demonized, as well as to that great silent middle class that we only see as the but of jokes or satire. And he’s done it by creating some of the most compelling characters ever seen on television. It also seems fitting after a few weeks where white, upper class, highly-educated men have been claiming a book about their experience is the central experience in American society, that the MacArtuthur Foundation has bestowed it’s “genius grant” on someone who spent so many years drawing a detailed, compassionate, character-driven portrait of the America in which the other 85% of us live.