Archive for October, 2008

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Politics & Literature

October 31, 2008

Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, posted today its latest “NBCC Reads” list — the result of polling members on the question: “Which work of fiction, nonfiction, or poetry best captures the realities of American political culture?” Topping the list (deservedly so, of course) is Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men — still packing a punch 60 years after its publication.

I myself submitted a small reply that didn’t make the main list — and wasn’t expected to, I’ll admit, since it didn’t really aim to answer the question exactly, but instead offered an interesting anecdote from earlier this year. (I’ve just been told that my response will be included as a freestanding “long tail” entry in subsequent posts at Critical Mass.)

Earlier this spring, I was teaching a course in American detective fiction at George Mason University, and one of the books on our syllabus was Margaret Maron’s 1992 novel Bootlegger’s Daughter, a book I’d chosen in part because of the way it sought to explore contemporary (by which I mean 1992 contemporary) social issues and in part because it had ultimately swept several mystery awards: the Edgar, the Anthony, the Agatha, and the Macavity (still the only novel to make such a sweep, I believe). 

We reached our reading of Bootlegger’s Daughter in the midst of some of the hottest, tensest moments of the Democratic primary. Clinton and Obama were battling it out in a contest in which race and gender were often in the forefront of the conversation, either implicitly or sometimes explicitly. Meanwhile, in the book, main character Deborah Knott (a white woman) was in a high-stakes run-off with Luther Parker (a black man) for a judgeship in Colleton County, N.C. — and one of our most interesting in-class discussions explored how the issues facing that fictional political race resonated, with increasingly eerie similarities, with what was playing out each day on the news with regards to the Clinton-Obama face-off.

At one point, someone distributes fake letters from each candidate, impugning the other in the harshest terms. The message copied onto Knott’s letterhead “wasn’t quite as blatant as He’s a nigger, I’m white, vote for me, but it was the next thing to it.” Here’s a later scene in which Knott reads the next fake bit of propaganda, this one supposedly sent out by Parker’s camp:

If one could believe everything in this open letter, Luther Parker was an upright, foursquare Christian family man who sang with the angels when he wasn’t defending Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Ms. Deborah Knott, on the other hand, was an unmarried (a) castrating bitch, (b) promiscuous whore, or (c) closet lesbian (pick one), the daughter of the biggest bootlegger in Colleton County history, and a defender of foreign drug dealers from whom she was probably getting a cut of the profits. “If Ms. Knott is elected to the bench, it will be speedy trials and speedier acquittals for drunks, junkies, and perverts of all kinds.”

Does this mean that Bootlegger’s Daughter “captures the realities of American political culture”? Well, no…. and it also doesn’t imply, by any means, that Maron was prescient of what was going to be happening more than a decade and a half after the novel came out. But it does say something, I think, about how society’s treatment of questions of race and gender haven’t entirely changed much in those 16 years, and proves that Maron’s big breakthrough book is as relevant and interesting as ever these days. 

Other books I’ve been reading, rereading, using or perusing this week:

  • The Doomsters by Ross Macdonald (took me a while to finish it)
  • Feed the Hungry: A Memoir with Recipes by Nani Power
  • The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories by Pagan Kennedy

— Art Taylor

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Baseball & Literature

October 30, 2008

After celebrating the Phillies’ World Series wrap-up last night (!!!), I’m catching up on reading today and came across a piece on the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame by J. Peder Zane, the Ideas Columnist for the Raleigh News & Observer and one of the most thoughtful writers on literature I know. There’s a tie-in between the two parts of my lead sentence here: In the article, “Appreciating Our Literary Giants,” Zane compares the Literary Hall of Fame to the Baseball Hall of Fame, particularly focussing on a couple of North Carolina’s own baseball greats, in a way that opens up our perspectives not only on the state’s writers but also on the immortality of literature in general. Here’s a quick excerpt:

What is the purpose of a hall of fame? To answer those questions I thought about how Weymouth [the Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities, home to the Literary Hall of Fame] differs from that famous hall in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Young baseball fans can hear about Buck Leonard’s towering home runs and Catfish Hunter’s legendary control on the mound. They can memorize every statistic from those brilliant careers. But fans can never truly know what it was like to see those splendid Tar Heel ballplayers in their primes.

The Baseball Hall of Fame is like a message from the past to the present that says: Trust us, we saw them, they were the very best.

Our writers, by contrast, are ageless — their books, that is, if not their bodies.

One hundred years from now readers will still be able to see [James] Applewhite, [William] Powell and [Lee] Smith at the top of their games. A flick of a book cover — or the power switch on some high-tech device — will transport them into the immortal worlds the writers created.

Tomorrow’s readers will not need us to tell them what they can see and feel for themselves. They will know that greatness firsthand. The power of the writer’s work ensures its posterity….

The analogy isn’t entirely fool-proof, of course. In some cases, to read an author from today’s perspective is to miss the full weight of the impact that author may have had on his or her times. Look (for an easy example) at two writers whose careers began in the 1920s: Ernest Hemingway and Dashiell Hammett. Reading either man’s works, today’s readers may well see some genius there, but they may not completely recognize how radically these two men impacted the style of American letters and even changed (forever) American language — and I don’t think that’s too much of an overstatement. We’re accustomed to those styles now; we may even find them clichéd. But at the time….

Still, Zane’s point is a good one — and an encouragement to North Carolina readers to explore the riches of the state’s long literary history, as well as an encouragement to all of us to dust of those classics and rediscover the greatness always among us.

Another good link: C.M. Mayo, today’s guest blogger for The Writer’s Center, offers “Ten Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Writing Workshop.” I think I should get my own students to take a look at this one.

— Art Taylor

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A Nonfiction Writing Exercise

October 29, 2008

Writers Porter Shreve and Bich Minh Nguyen (husband and wife) have each found success individually: Shreve is the author of three novels, most recently When the White House Was Ours, and Nguyen authored the award-winning memoir Stealing Buddha’s Dinner. In addition to their individual publications, the couple has also co-edited three anthologies, including a text that I’ve used often in teaching one of my own workshops at George Mason: Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: I & Eye. The book looks at several types of nonfiction writing, broadly breaking them up into personal essays (the “I” — focussing on memory, reflection, etc.) and literary journalistic works (the “Eye” — looking outward at the world around us). The collection includes some of the top names in creative nonfiction: Susan Orlean, Tom Wolfe, Tracy Kidder, Phillip Lopate, John McPhee, James Alan McPherson, Jonathan Raban, David Sedaris, Diane Ackerman, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joan Didion, Lee Gutkind, and on and on. It also includes a nice selection of “writing prompts,” from which today’s exercise is taken: 

Jamaica Kincaid’s “Biography of a Dress” begins with a photograph, and the progress of her essay is an exercise in memory. She meditates on the story behind the picture, imbuing a two-dimensional object with full and textured meaning. This prompt requires that you find an old picture of yourself and proceed to reconstruct the time in which the picture was taken. Choosing the right photograph is critical here. Perhaps it was taken at a turning point — perhaps on your parents’ last vacation before their divorce or just before you moved from one place to another. The moment should be meaningful and evocative of a specific time. Keeping in mind the necessity of writing with the senses, travel back to that room or environment by recalling the objects, sights, and associations there. Who else is in the picture? Who took it? What was the occasion? What memories or ideas does the photograph trigger?

Long before I read this exercise, I wrote a short nonfiction story about a photograph of my mother. Too long to post here (I think), but I learned something important from writing that story —both about my mother and about my writing — which makes me particularly keen on encouraging this prompt now.

— Art Taylor

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Tony Hillerman Dies October 26

October 27, 2008

Sad news for mystery fans everywhere that Tony Hillerman died Sunday; information on the author’s life and career can be found in the Associated Press obituary, as printed in the Washington Post. Many years ago, I went through a period of devouring Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee series the way I’ve done with few other authors — enthralled by that mix of masterful storytelling and rich social, cultural and historical detail about tribal life. I remember being on a family trip, sitting in the backseat of the car and desperately working my way through one novel as the miles whizzed past, and then as soon as we arrived at our destination, trying to find a bookstore — any bookstore — where I could pick up another of Hillerman’s books. I don’t remember where my family was headed on that vacation, but I do recall vividly being transported into the world of the novels and wanting to return there again and again.

In memoriam, here’s a short excerpt from A Thief of Time, one of the first of Hillerman’s novels that I myself read and one of the “breakthrough” novels that put him firmly on the bestseller lists. The opening passage takes place under “the light of an October moon”: 

The moon had risen just above the cliff behind her. Out on the packed sand of the wash bottom the shadow of the walker made a strange elongated shape. Sometimes it suggested a heron, sometimes one of those stick-figure forms of an Anasazi pictograph. An animated pictograph, its arms moving rhythmically as the moon shadow drifted across the sand. Sometimes, when the goat trail bent and put the walker’s profile against the moon, the shadow became Kokopelli himself. The backpack formed the spirit’s grotesque hump, the walking stick Kokopelli’s crooked flute. Seen from above, the shadow would have made a Navajo believe that the great yei northern clans called Watersprinkler had taken visible form. If an Anasazi had risen from his thousand-year grave in the trash heap under the cliff ruins here, he would have seen the Humpbacked Flute Player, the rowdy god of fertility of his lost people….

Do yourself a favor: Find the rest of the book, and read it now. 

— Art Taylor

A brief P.S.: Please do check out Dennis Drabelle’s short blog piece on meeting Hillerman — it’s brief, but both poignant and pointed.

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Poe in Philadelphia & Elsewhere

October 27, 2008

Tara and I were in and around Philadelphia for the weekend — and we’re still celebrating both of the Phillies’ big wins and the Eagles’ win in between baseball games. While we were in Philly, we also made a quick stop at the Edgar Allan Poe house on 7th and Spring Garden Streets. Our visit was a little ill-timed, it turns out, because much of the facility is closed as the National Park Service completes preparations for the big Poe bicentennial birthday celebrations in early 2009; currently, only the historic home itself is available for tour and only during limited operating hours. Still, much fun was to be had — including a trip down into the cellar, where I got a glimpse of what it might have felt like to be “The Black Cat” or that fellow at the end of “The Cask of Amontillado.” Fortunately, Tara was too busy behind the camera to begin adding bricks to the wall.

Information on the site and on a new exhibition and events planned in conjunction with the bicentennial are available here. Additionally, the Rare Book Department of the Parkway Central Library is already hosting an exhibition of Poe’s works and heirlooms, including a first edition of Tamerlane and “Grip,” Dicken’s pet raven, who inspired Poe’s famous poem. 

Celebrations are also being held at the Poe Museum in Richmond and elsewhere around Virginia; at the Poe House and Museum in Baltimore; and in myriad other ways, as documented by John Wright’s great blog

Much to Tara’s chagrin, I’ll be marking events on our calendar soon, I’m sure.

— Art Taylor

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A Primer in Late 19th- & Early 20th-Century Detective Fiction

October 23, 2008

Textbook publishers Wadsworth Cengage Learning have a 2009 collection that offers a quick survey of some American writers once popular in and even influential to the genre of detective fiction but now perhaps largely neglected — and also offers a new look at at least one writer undersung both during her own lifetime and up through recent history. The booklet-sized anthology — titled (thrillingly!) Theme 12: Crime, Mystery, and Detection — is part of the new publishing project The Wadsworth Themes in American Literature Series, which includes 20 other such booklets, together presenting a broad view of major themes in American literature from 1492 to the present. The innovation here: Instead of a student (or any reader) having to purchase an unwieldy textbook (or even series of textbooks in this case), the individual “themes” can be bought and enjoyed independent of others — attractive, affordable and even book-bag friendly.

It’s easy for those of us occasionally teaching American detective fiction to assign a couple of Poe’s Dupin stories and then make a broad jump up to 20th-century literature: Hammett, Chandler, and so on to the present. I’ve done that myself. But this collection urges us to revisit the immediately post-Poe period in new ways, with works including one of the “Violet Strange” stories by Anna Katherine Green (traditionally credited with writing the first American detective novel, 1878’s The Leavenworth Case); one of Melville Davisson Post’s extremely popular “Uncle Abner” tales from the Saturday Evening Post;  and the tongue-in-cheek story “The Stolen White Elephant” by Mark Twain. Beyond these “big” names in detective fiction (at least two of which most modern days readers, even mystery fans, might scarcely recognize), the slim collection also explores more diverse writers, including African American author Pauline Hopkins, whose writings for the Colored American Magazine often sought to “transform popular fictional forms into vehicles of social protest,” and Maria Cristina Mena, who immigrated from Mexico to the U.S. just after the turn of the century and whose writings are only now being reexamined more fully as part of the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Heritage Project of Arte Publico Press.

These stories and other works by these writers are not entirely unavailable elsewhere; for example, Project Gutenberg’s Online Book Catalog has a wide selection of Anna Katherine Green’s writings available online with just a click of the mouse. But despite its modest size, this booklet strikes me as important for calling greater attention to these writers among the general reading public and encouraging the teaching of these works in the college classroom. I’ll add it to my own syllabus next time I get the chance.

— Art Taylor

P.S. Coincidentally — and not seen until after I posted this — another critic was also writing about early American detective fiction yesterday, not only in blog but in the bigger world

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Naming, Part II

October 22, 2008

Eleanor Davis, aspiring actress, slightly modified her first name the moment she set foot on campus at Brown: “Eleonora,” she told people, in her Virginia Tidewater accent, “with an ‘o’ in the middle and an ‘a’ at the end — à la the late great Duse,” with a slight look upward as she said the name, a barely perceptible flutter of the eyelids, and a dismissive snort if anyone asked who the late great “Duse” was (her new friends admired this haughtiness at first, but they wearied of it during fall of sophomore year). Eleanor’s father ran a successful cineplex in Norfolk, but whenever she was asked about her parents, she said they were “in theater” (short “a” in the pronunciation, of course); this lie precipitated that sophomore-year fall from grace, when Mom and Dad showed up for Parents’ Weekend and one of Eleanor’s acquaintances, envious of the attention the young actress had received, pressed her father a little too hard about that avant-garde production of Euripides’ Bacchae he’d supposedly mounted at an alpine resort several years before. “Closest I’ve gotten to Switzerland is a packet of Swiss Miss,” he laughed, to Eleanor’s ultimate (and permanent) mortification.

— Art Taylor

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