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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    This most reclusive of poets, unmarried, virtually unpublished in her lifetime, knew who she was and fired that knowing through her poetry.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.”

    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?

    James D. Houston

    James D. Houston

    FaceBook is a funny thing — I have deeply mixed feelings about it although I do like being in a sort of everyday casual contact with lots of old friends. On Saturday, when I was in between garden chores, I checked in to see what was happening and my old friend Sean O’Grady had posted Jim Houston’s obituary in the New York Times.

    I had no idea he’d been ill, and was just shocked that he’s gone. Jim was a tall, gentle man who you could count on to give you a true reading of your work. The very first year we did the Art of the Wild workshop at Squaw Valley, I got lucky enough to do a manuscript consultation with Jim. I had a chapter, maybe two of Place Last Seen, and I’ll never forget him looking at me across one of those white wire tables by the fountain and saying, “Well, it’s a real book. Now all you have to do is organize your life so you can write it.” There were many many moments writing that book when I thought I couldn’t do it, and then I’d hear Jim’s deep voice telling me I wasn’t delusional, it was a real book, and that I just had to keep going.

    After I finished the book, and published it, and discovered that nothing particularly magical happens after you publish a novel — there’s no magical movie deal that frees you from your day job and student loans, there are no parades or acclaim — if you’re lucky there are a few good reviews and you earn out your advance and you get invited to a few things. It was at one of those things, the Reno Book Fair, where I lucked out and got to do a reading from Place Last Seen with Jim. We were paired up. I was so pleased, and grateful to have a chance to tell the story in public about how kind he’d been to me, and how much it had meant. Afterwards, we were talking on the front steps of the building and I mentioned that the hardcover was going out of print. “Buy as many copies as you can afford,” Jim told me. “Because it’s your first book, and you’ll write others, and there will never be any more of these and you’ll want to sell them at readings in the future.” I got sort of choked up. It had been about three years since I’d sold PLS and I was really struggling to find another story. “Really?” I said. “You think there will be more?” He clapped me on the shoulder, “of course there will,” he said. “Like I said, buy as many of your hardcovers as you can afford.”

    Thanks to Jim there are still about a hundred and fifty copies in my basement. He was a dear kind man, and a good writer, and a good teacher, and from what I hear he was a beloved father and husband. For me, I’ll just always be grateful for his kind words when I was so frightened of this project I’d taken on.