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The Book I Read: Works Unfinished, Finishing the Appalachian Book of the Dead, and a Prayer for October

Listen to the Podcast version of this blog entry here!

True confession: I often abandon books before I finish them. Sometimes I go back, sometimes I never do. The reasons for the abandonment vary–but rarely, is it because I am disinterested. Only a couple of times have I ever stopped reading because I thought the book was awful. I’m not going to talk about those books. I’m staking out a philosophical stand here, in this podcast, that I’m really not interested in slagging on books. So, most often, I will stop reading a book because I have been distracted by another reading, wooed away, if you will, by something more tantalizing and shiny (and likely, less challenging). Often, I am interrupted by the beginning of the school year, and here we are–when there are so many other responsibilities in preparation and in keeping the ball in the air for September and October. I just run out of time for recreational reading of any kind. Sometimes I will abandon a book simply because I have bit off more than I could chew. I’ve chosen something ambitious or difficult. I have read IN Finnegans Wake, for example, but I have never even attempted to go from cover to cover. In a similar vein, I think I tried Ulysses four or five times–each time I’d go back to the beginning and start all over again, get about as far as I got the last time, and then give up again. I am proud to say, that one year I did finally read all the way through the great Joyce novel. I felt pretty good about that, even though I knew that I understood it poorly–knew more from things I had read about it than I did from the actual reading of it. It’s on my bucket list to read again; Finnegans Wake, too, is a book that I would like to tackle before I die–just so that I could say that I did it. No–I’m sure it would be more than that. I don’t think I read ever simply for bragging rights. Although, that would not be nearly as bad as bragging about not reading. I hate to hear people speak about getting all the way through school without reading a book from cover to cover as if it’s some great accomplishment. Just stab me in the heart, why don’t ya.

Two of my favorite books I’ve never finished are The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I think I got maybe 100 pages or so into Melville’s masterpiece on a couple different occasions, and it was a simple lack of stamina or commitment that stopped me–much of it I found absolutely engaging and astonishingly MODERN. I really loved it. Ishmael and Queequeg and Ahab–just fascinating characters. Someday soon I will return to those guys. Writing it, or saying it out loud like this, I think, makes it more likely to become a reality. What is that pattern? Thoughts become words become actions. This is how things happen. I spoke about the Thomas Mann novel very briefly in my last episode, and I think it is, in this time and moment, a book that I must come back to–like right about now. It’s a pandemic novel, for crying out loud. And I think I will experiment. I put that novel down a year ago. Instead of what I have done with Ulysses and Moby Dick, that is, every time I pick it up I go back to the beginning, Sisyphus-like, and start again, I think what I’ll do this time is just simply review passages that I’ve marked, jar the old memory banks, and begin exactly where I left off a year ago, about 230 pages into a 700 page tome. It won’t be that hard. I did leave behind a series of reflections on my progress–an experiment with the ubiquitous “reaction video”–that petered out after about 4 episodes.

. . . So, while I am diving back into–or climbing back onto–The Magic Mountain, I have finished Appalachian Book of the Dead by Dale Neal. So let’s talk about that. In the last episode I introduced you to the main characters, an aging couple recently married (Cal, the retired commodities trader and his younger wife, Joy, the pottery artist, formerly a physical therapist), Ainsley, a young bohemian woman practicing Tibetan Buddhism, and Doyle, the superstitious and handy caretaker of the abandoned Camp Bee Tree for girls–all of them living in the wilds of the Appalachian Mountains–pretty isolated save for each other’s strange company. However, there may or may not be an escaped convict–a psychopathic murderer, no less, hiding in the woods. When Ainsley, our Buddhist yurt dweller, who has recently shaved off her dreadlocks and is completely bald, starts feeding a visiting coyote, can we be sure it’s the coyote and not the convict that’s taking the food she leaves out? And who or what is killing Joy’s barn cats? Are these folks in danger? So that’s part of the drama, always percolating, but just beneath the surface. If you were to call this novel a “thriller,” you’d be on to something–but you wouldn’t be capturing the essence of this thing–which is, to my understanding, realistic, literary fiction–and I say literary for two reasons. One, the writing is exquisite, beautiful, finely crafted. And the characterization is deep. It seems to me, a standard kind of horror story or thriller novel turns mostly on plot–what’s gonna happen next. While literary fiction often turns on character. Who are these people? What makes them tick? And why do I care so much? What am I learning? How have I been confronted with new ideas? While you’re likely to be entertained by a popular thriller, you’re more likely to be CHANGED by literary fiction. That’s what we have here with Dale Neal’s novel.

A few choices, though, amp up the thrill and the drama: Neal’s decision to write a few chapters in the Coyote’s perspective as she appears to cross paths with the escaped convict, and his super creepy choice of giving chapters to the convict as well, delivered in second person no less, so that the reader in a sense becomes the bad guy in the story, the bad guy whose chapters are punctuated with instructions in italicized print, which, I’m guessing, are taken directly from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, instructions for passing through the various stages of the Bardo, the in-between, before emerging into the next life. Perhaps, the convict, lost in this in-between of the mysterious and wild Appalachian Mountains, is metaphorically in a kind of Bardo. Meanwhile, we spend a significant amount of time with our four main characters–we learn more and more about them as the novel progresses; questions we have about their pasts are answered–and in some cases, like the fate of Ainsley’s boyfriend Bernie, our assumptions from earlier in the novel are corrected. It turns out that each of these individuals, including our lurking boogie man, have these incredibly vivid and often tragic back stories. And while I call this novel realistic fiction–it’s full of ghosts. They may be psychological ghosts–but they are delivered by our narrator, in the point of view of the character of focus for each chapter, as if they were literal. In one of our convict’s chapters, he sees the smoking, charred–and still alive–body of the man he murdered in the very first chapter. He even hears him speak. But, you know, our convict, Angel, has been out there so long in the wilderness, surviving on what? on food left out for coyotes and on unsuspecting barn cats?–that he might be beginning to lose his mind.

And I must warn you, that the concluding chapters of Appalachian Book of the Dead contain a veritable mountain picnic basket of surprises, that to talk very specifically about anything else that follows, seems like treading in some dangerous spoiler waters. But here are some questions: Will Ainsley realize her dreams of revitalizing her family’s mountain camp for girls? What might be the consequences of her brief and torrid interest in the old man and his interest in her? Why does the old man, Cal, who has been sober for seven years, ask Doyle, the caretaker of Camp Bee Tree, if he can score him some moonshine? Where is that murderous escaped convict? Who belongs here? Who does not? The pinnacle of the action in this novel, oddly enough, takes place around a kind of campfire gathering of the four main characters as they sit by a firing kiln that Doyle has engineered and constructed for Joy’s crazy pottery art. It is, perhaps, the single longest scene in the entire work–plenty of time to build steam. It is an absolutely wild ride from that point on. And answers are forthcoming, I promise. There’s some mighty karmic justice at work here in the end of Neal’s novel. It’s a satisfying ending, not much is left dangling. Appalachian Book of the Dead is a novel that brings together a lovely philosophical swirl of competing beliefs and values, an incredibly wicked landscape, and deep, vivid, believable, fully fleshed out characterization. Two thumbs up. If I had some more thumbs, I’d put them up as well.

I’d like to close, as I have over the last few episodes, with another poem by a friend of mine. On a personal note here, we’ve had significant rain in Portland, Oregon over the last few days for the first time in months. It’s been a warm, dry, summer. Fires are raging all over, but for us this year, the smoke has not reached us. The rain was welcome–and even though it’s been warm, all the autumn pyrotechnics are in full throttle. Before the sky opened up with precipitation, it was raining leaves and acorns from our giant oak trees. In a month’s time we will be buried in them. So my friend David Ruekberg, from his book Hour of the Green Light, has written this poem for the fall, “October Prayer.” It also seems fitting here today for a number of reasons. I’ll leave that open ended for you, dear listener, to play around with. From David Ruekberg’s Hour of the Green Light:

October Prayer

If a grey sky can be indicative
of a life lived in the long echo
of the snap of umbilical cord

and a farewell to the self of pure love
floating in a green light near the origins
of particle and wave,

then let leaves high in the maple
turning to their first autumn orange
be messengers of messengers

from the tallest, most foriegn
angels that death is waiting
for your next accident

and, no matter how cautious
you are, you will only ever
catch one glimpse.

Let the call of crow bobbing
in the pines be the ungainly ugliness
in your life that you must accept,

and let the digging in the yard for grubs
be your digging–acrid food
of your often-rehearsed regrets.

Crow gives way to silence
in which you hear
another kind of stirring.

Perhaps skies stretching,
preparing rain, watering
the suffering earth.

David Ruekberg

As a fiction writer, or essayist, I love poetry and in particular the poet’s close attention to the sentence. I just think that the most exquisite sentences in the English language can be found in poetry–and prose writers of all stripes, and writers, generally, whether they are pros or beginners, would do well to study the sentences of poets. I mean, this is kind of a wonky thing to talk about, but I love that the first five stanzas of this poem form a single, beautiful sentence, the next two stanzas form a single sentence, and then the last two stanzas each form their own, short little sentences, haiku-like. So this poem just has a beautiful shape, a funnel shape, or a kind of leaf-falling shape. But holy cow, more importantly and more beautifully is what the poem says–what it says about birth and death, what it says about a kind of welcoming acceptance to everything, about what is possible to hear or to understand in silence.

Thanks for reading, friends. Coming up next: I think we have to return to The Magic Mountain. Cheers!

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The Book I Read: Wisdom Lit, the Power of Allusion, Lincoln in the Bardo, and the President’s Hat

As a student of literature, always a beginner, and one interested in a wide variety of wisdom literature or philosophical texts, certain books of historical and literary significance have crossed my radar, have maybe even made it into the home library, but have never been read, you know, famous philosophical or spiritual texts like the Tao Te Ching or The Bhagavad Gita or, more modern texts–Gibran’s The Prophet, for example. Among these kinds of work I would include the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Until recently, even though I was aware of the title and its historical, cultural, and spiritual mega-importance, I had no idea what it was about. It turns out–it is, in short, about a place called The Bardo–which I will feebly attempt to describe in the progress of this entry. This word “bardo,” too, was new to me. Only recently was I introduced to the concept of the bardo by the songwriter, composer, and performance artist Laurie Anderson–a huge influence on me, by the way–since the late 80s she has helped shape me as a writer and a musician–being, as she is, one of the most successful artists (in my humble opinion) to bridge the literary and musical worlds. In 2015 Laurie Anderson wrote, directed and produced a film with an accompanying soundtrack album, “Heart of a Dog.” Here we are on dogs again! At any rate, her film is a meditation on a number of things: living in New York in the aftermath of 9/11, her midwestern childhood and early traumatic brushes with death, but primarily, the loving relationship and ultimate loss of her pet terrier Lola–and by thinly veiled metaphor–her loving relationship and ultimate loss of her husband, Lou Reed. Actually, I don’t know that the metaphor is thinly veiled at all, it’s pretty obscure–Reed’s name is mentioned not once in the film–but the film does close with perhaps one of his last recorded songs, the beautiful and haunting “Turning Time Around.” At any rate, at one point in her film, she imagines her beloved puppy in this place–not just as an exercise, but as part of her spiritual practice–her rat terrier Lola is in the bardo.*

Don’t worry, eventually, I will arrive at the George Saunders novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. I’m serving up this long preamble, in part, to kind of demonstrate what we do sometimes when we are faced, from the get-go, (from the title!) with an allusion that we don’t understand. What’s the bardo?–the first question a reader is going ask when they approach this thing–that is, if they do not have the requisite prior knowledge. And I talk about this with my students all the time regarding allusion. What’s are the consequences, for a reader, of not understanding an allusion? If Shakespeare’s character mentions a Greek myth, for example, one that you don’t know, are you completely out in the cold? Can you still move forward without that knowledge with full understanding? Maybe you can. I know that Greek Myth was an absolute hole in my education when I was reading Shakespeare for the first time–and somehow I managed not only to understand Shakespeare but to love him. Here’s the thing I say. If you come across an allusion, and you DO have the requisite prior knowledge, your understanding of the work is enriched, as is your appreciation for how interconnected human beings are by STORY; it is a thread that binds us all together.

So, what’s the bardo? Now, granted, this is, as I have confessed, a new one for me. I have not read The Tibetan Book of the Dead, but, through Laurie Anderson’s work and some time with the google machine, I have discovered that the bardo, according to Tibetan Buddhism, is a transitional space between one life and the next. When you die, you spend, according to Tibetan lore, 49 days in the bardo, at which point you are reincarnated into the next life. Granted, this is a cursory, a superficial definition. Our job then, is not to understand everything there is to know about the bardo in Tibetan Buddhist teachings, but rather, to simply describe the way it is revealed in George Saunders’ novel.

We can get to that in a minute. First, it might be important to establish, quickly, a historical context for the novel, and to describe somewhat the unique, the super-strange, the inventive way, and the very challenging way, this novel is put together. First, it’s February 20th, 1862, about 10 months into the American Civil War, and president Abraham Lincoln’s son, William, 11 years old, dies at home in bed of typhoid fever. And to provide, again quickly, the premise of the novel: William arrives, after his death, in the bardo–where an enormous cast of characters who already occupy this space, are serving out their time, and who become immersed in the drama and tragedy of William’s death and the effort to help him through this liminal space to the other side.

Stylistically, the storytelling method here is singular, unlike anything I’ve ever seen–breaking both with conventions and tradition of narrative fiction, it is a highly experimental work. While the entire novel is mostly delivered in short bursts of prose separated from other bursts by a break or double space, the story is revealed to us in essentially two ways. Some chapters, a full quarter of them, I’d say loosely, are collections of, what seems to me, quotes from primary texts from the era–histories, news articles, essays, op ed articles, letters, oral histories or interviews–and it appears that these pieces of text are recorded faithfully by Saunders without changes. So these are pieces that Saunders has not written, per se, but only selected and then arranged. So that, for example, in several chapters that describe a party the Lincolns host at the White House while 11 year old Willie is upstairs dying, the description, the narrative line, speech and commentary are all made up from these quotes from primary source documents–each one with an identifying source note afterwards. Miraculously, these quotes from this wide range of sources, in the way that Saunders has selected and arranged them, provide a coherent and compelling narrative–a cacophony of voices that nevertheless provide clarity.

The remaining chapters, the bulk of this novel, (and what could be decisively described as Saunders’ own imaginative work), are delivered as a kind of play. Each burst of prose in these sections, then, are delivered by characters who occupy the bardo–unlike a play, however, where the character’s name is placed before the line they speak, in this case the lines the characters speak are followed by the name of the character speaking. This provides a challenge for the reader–the choice between a temptation to look ahead to the end of the burst to identify the speaker, or, to read the speech without knowing who the speaker is, and thus, be kind of guessing all the time until you might be able to identify the voice even before you’re told whose voice it is! This is hardly an issue when the lines from characters are short and follow one another in rapid-fire succession as they often do–the attribution is right there. Identifying characters or not seems to be more of an issue when the characters are given long lines or paragraphs of prose. Does it matter? I think it does–because each of these speakers has been uniquely characterized–they all have their back stories, their histories, their quirks, their syntax and rhythms. Who are these people? One of the questions that I had, which was never satisfactorily answered, was whether the characters in the bardo are also historical figures–or–are they purely the fictional creations of the novelist. Without time for further digging, my gut tells me that the latter is the case here. Still–who are these people?

There’s a mess of them, from all walks of life, it appears, with no common denominator save for the fact that they’re all in the bardo–and oddly, somewhat oblivious to their “condition.” –but primarily, there are three main characters in this bardo cacophony (Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and the Reverend Everly Thomas), characters who take center stage, speak most often, interact with each other, seem to have established in the bardo a long-term relationship, take turns telling the story, each from their own unique perspective, and guide us, the readers, through the drama–while all the others, dozens of them perhaps, interrupt, introduce bizarre side stories or other kinds of historical revelation, sometimes help out, other times provide insight, often provide comic relief, absurdity, and sometimes, other windows into the horrors of the 19th century, slavery, the civil war, occurring in what the characters often call “that previous place.”

I fear that I could go on and on an on about this novel and only scratch the surface. As I write this thing, conscious of wanting to stay under 2000 words or so, or, 20 or 25 minutes on the clock, my brain just swims with possibility. And I fear leaving out something key–not in the way of a spoiler–because I want to be really conscious of avoiding those, but in the way of capturing the most important and striking features of this novel for me. You know what I think I’ll do–something I do often when stymied about how to proceed organizing big ideas? I’m gonna make a list:

Let’s begin with some observations about the bardo.

The people there seem to be unaware that they’re dead–

The people there, when they are not out and about, inhabit what they all refer to as “sick beds,” which seem, to me anyway, to be a unintentional euphemism for coffin. Unintentional, again, because these residents don’t seem to be aware of their true nature–

The bardo is full of these sick beds–which seems to indicate that the bardo is essentially a massive cemetery–that the people in the bardo have not really travelled that far from their resting place.

Many of the people in the bardo are in various stages of anguish, or self-torture–if one did not know better, you might say that many of them are in Hell–

Or, you might say that they are in a process of repeatedly acting out or experiencing some of their worldly defects or traumas–although, some appear to be content where they are–do not wish to leave.

The environment there seems prone to surreal and bizarre states–people physically mutating in grotesque ways, hats raining from the sky, people being mutilated in an act of violence and then miraculously repairing themselves.

People in the bardo (in this bardo, anyway) seem to have been there a lot longer than 49 days–so, either Saunders is breaking with that particular convention of Tibetan Buddhist belief, or, the residents of the bardo experience time in an excruciating and elongated way.

When someone leaves the bardo, the process is referred to somewhat crudely as the matterlightblooming phenomena. It’s quite something. Clearly, a process that is bewildering to the residents of the bardo.

One of the most exciting features of bardo existence, and one of the devices that moves this story along and provides us with an exhaustive knowledge about the star of the show–not the folks in the bardo, not the young dead 11 year old boy, but the president Abraham Lincoln–is that the folks in the bardo discover they have the ability to inhabit the bodies of others–living others–and dramatically in a few key passages, some of them–actually many of them, inhabit the body, and therefore the mind, of Abraham Lincoln, while he is visiting his dead son in the crypt.

And I guess I would like to stop here to say that for me the single most profound takeaway from this novel is that I feel like I know more about Abraham Lincoln than I ever have–I feel like I have had the privilege of inhabiting that incredibly monumental historic figure–and the central drama of this piece seems to be the inconceivable, incomprehensible burden of losing a child–coupled with the potential loss of a nation that is under one’s charge. Most of us cannot imagine the second–but all of us who are parents or who had parents (I think that’s most of us), can imagine what it might be like to lose a child–and this novel gives us that viscerally. As bizarre as this novel is in its subject and in the way of its telling, it is an incredibly moving, heart wrenching, heavy work. But I am so glad I finally pulled it off the shelf. And I can’t have been alone–again–as strange as it is, it became a best seller for George Saunders and catapulted to many lists of great books made by people who know things about great books.

In my last installment of The Book I Read, I was inspired to end the episode/entry with a poem written by a friend of mine. This seems like a good tradition. Last time, too, that choice didn’t come out left field, but was a logical decision–in that the friend’s book recommendation was wholly responsible for the content of that episode–and the poem I had chosen served as a fitting bookend to the general subject matter under discussion. I want to keep that tradition going–or at least–let it be a motif in this series.

My friend and poet Don Colburn has published a book of poems called Mortality with Pronoun Shifts. It is a brilliant collection of poems that serves as a meditation on, you guessed it, mortality–and while there are no poems specifically about the bardo, there are poems here about great historical figures, two 19th century figures to be precise, Henry David Thoreau and Abraham Lincoln. I’d like to close by sharing with you a poem by Don Colburn, “Abe Lincoln’s Hat”

Abe Lincoln’s Hat

at the Smithsonian Museum

Topper, stovepipe, smokestack, cylinder,
it made him seven inches taller
than he was (and he was tall)
and, at a distance, fashionable.
But here, dim-lit behind glass,
without a gangly, scrabble-bearded president
to dignify and heighten, it looks lost.
Unlike those who saw him, say, at Gettysburg,
I can look down on the hard flat top,
the rub of wear and weather, streaks
like rust, their grainy whorls
a time-lapse of the overbearing stars.
And see, barely, darkness on darkness,
the black silk band he added after Willie died.

Someone named Davis made this hat,
a modest seven-and-one-eighth,
stiff-walled oval pillbox on a plate,
no give or dimple in the plush.
He wore it last and doffed it last
the night they went to Ford’s, arriving late.
After cheers, after the orchestra struck up
Hail to the Chief, the play resumed, Act Three.
Hatless again, he folded his 6-foot-4
into the rocker in the presidential box,
his top hat by his feet, out of the way.

Don Colburn

Oh my god. Right? Lincoln’s hat is perfectly preserved. He probably wouldn’t have thought to leave it on his head while watching a play, but, you know, he could have fallen over on top of it after he was shot. But no–it’s “out of the way.” I love this poem. And it makes me think of what people leave behind after they’re gone, you know, people who aren’t presidents. And I can’t help but think about a musician friend of mine who recently died. I wonder where he put his bass guitar–whether it might be preserved. But he made music and he recorded music. Bob’s bass. Lincoln’s hat. Bob’s music. Lincoln’s hat. Hey Abe, say hello to Bob for me, in the bardo. Meanwhile, I will keep listening.

Here is a link to the podcast version of this blog entry

*I discovered today, that after Laurie Anderson’s 2015 “Heart of a Dog” film and album, in 2019, she released an album called “Songs from the Bardo.” I’m listening now for the first time–kind of embarrassed that it was not on my radar–but I’m thinking that this, for the uninitiated, might be a wonderful introduction to all things bardo–perhaps a more accessible route than tackling The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and one that might provide some insights ahead of time to the imagery Saunders incorporates into his novel Lincoln in the Bardo.

https://open.spotify.com/album/08D0Jby6PtRWX9io6dQamA?si=f9CBUAMoTXitR2VVVVLP6A&dl_branch=1

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The Book I Read: Books as Gifts, The Hidden Life of Fifteen Dogs, and Budgie Danger

I have admitted in previous entries that I am a relatively slow reader. I read well, I think, but slowly. Perhaps I’m a better reader because of it. But because I love reading, and because I have the English major’s obsession with a list of things I want to (and think I should) read, I am sometimes paralyzed when friends gift me books. Recently, as in within the last year or two, I have been gifted a couple of books, books for which I had no previous knowledge or awareness, but books, as I came to understand by a very cursory digging around, that are well-known, well respected, critically acclaimed, examples of the dreaded “classic I’ve never heard of” category of books, or the “contemporary genius I’ve never heard of” category of books. Of course, then, they must be added to the list of books I want to (and think I should) read. And that’s all fine and good. But because they have been GIFTED to me, in each case by people I love and respect, there’s this added sense of responsibility toward putting those books at the top of the list–of reading those books before others on the list, because, you know, they were gifts, thoughtful gifts, and there’s this feeling that I am obligated to read and share my reaction with the very kind friend who gifted me the book. In at least a couple of occasions, that obligation, that sense of responsibility toward my benefactor, has gone on for a year or two. In that time–lots of guilty wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth. It’s time, then, finally, to fulfill my obligation and tackle once and for all the gifted books, or at least today, one of them.

I love dogs. Growing up, I always had dogs. As an adult, my wife and I through our long history together have rarely ever been without a dog. Now we have two. And, you know, if you are, like us, somewhat in love with your dogs, they end up making their way into your social networking feeds–you’re posting cute pictures of them with funny captions, you’re revealing their most recent exploits (ours love to escape into the neighborhood to flirt with death and pillage like pirates), you’re writing poems about them, or you’re taking selfies of them napping with you. I try to be careful about this. I don’t do it a ton. I love them–but they are not the absolute center of my existence. Nevertheless, the few times I have posted dog activity inspired a good friend of mine, the poet Terri Ford, to send me this book under discussion today, The 2015 Writer’s Trust of Canada Fiction Prize winner, André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs.

A book I have owned but never read is The Hidden Life of Dogs, although I know vaguely that it is a non-fiction study about what it’s like to be a dog–how a dog thinks and feels as it exists, you know, as a dog. This novel by André Alexis, Fifteen Dogs, is a different kind of study. It is a novel that asks the question, what if, not all dogs, but fifteen dogs, had the capacity to think and feel like humans do.

Here’s the set up, right out of the gate: two gods walk into a bar–no, this is not a joke–two gods actually walk into a bar (Apollo and Hermes, to be precise) and over five rounds (they’re beer drinkers) they begin a philosophical discussion about the relative significance of human beings compared to any other living creature. Apollo sees them as no better, no worse. Hermes argues that they are more interesting, more complex, more amusing than any other creatures. Hermes wonders what it would be like if animals had the intelligence of human beings, and Apollo wonders whether, with that kind of capacity, animals would be as unhappy as humans are. Apollo suggests a wager: a year of servitude that, given human intelligence, animals would be more unhappy than humans. Under one condition, Hermes insists, that if just ONE of these animals is happy when they die, Hermes would be the victor. It is agreed, and, walking out of the bar the two gods spy a kennel–so a decision is made: let it be dogs. And it was. The fifteen dogs staying overnight at this particular kennel, through divine intervention, are given human intelligence. This group of randomly assorted breeds, then, immediately put that human intelligence to good use and escape from the kennel. And we are off to the races.

There are early and devastating results. Three tragic and clearly unhappy deaths immediately ensue. There’s a conflict between the remaining pack of dogs as to whether or not this new ability is a blessing or a curse. One dog begins reciting original poetry and is summarily shunned. Very soon, we have a Lord of the Flies type situation on our hands. Whereas, in Lord of the Flies, children on their own act like animals (but that’s probably not fair, as Golding seems to be saying that human beings are a far inferior species, and that the children, as opposed to acting like animals, are just really acting like adults–who act like animals), in Fifteen Dogs, animals act like humans, but then, many of them, try to avoid acting like humans, the result of which is that they become dogs acting like humans acting like dogs who are aware of the contradiction. The remainder of this highly engaging, super richly woven, intensely and seriously witty novel follows the survivors of the initial chaos as they navigate their lives without the original pack and as the wagering gods, among others (the Fates and Zeus himself), follow their progress. Which of them, if any, will die happy? Morbidly enough, in order to have an answer to this question, all these dogs must die–and they do. Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler, really–I mean, it is, but it isn’t, because the joy of this novel is immensely more than the answer to the survival question.

Despite the tone our 3rd person omniscient narrator takes, one of serious reportage, almost a clinical narrative of the facts and just the facts, the novel is hilariously funny in parts, deeply moving in others, philosophically rich, and interestingly enough, humane.

Let’s begin with the funny bits, just a few that were highlights for me: the first time, Prince, the poet dog, recites one of his poems-the reviews from the pack are terribly mixed. And later: “Prince had spoken another poem … and Max had wanted to kill him on the spot.” If Alexis’s hand can be seen anywhere, it is perhaps in his mockery of poetry–“For one thing,” Alexis writes, “like most poets, Prince’s way of reciting his works was eccentric,” a manner of recitation that “would have been strange for any human that was not a poet.” And there is the dog that memorizes the opening passage of Vanity Fair to please it’s literary human master. One of our main character dogs, Majnoun, with his new and beloved human companion, learns film criticism, another dog’s sense of hierarchy is completely befuddled by his human companions’ tendency toward kinky sex.

Perhaps my favorite scene in the novel–funny–yes–but also touching and, to me at least, philosophically truthful, is a scene where Majnoun’s human companion Nira asks him if dogs have stories. He says, of course they do, and then proceeds with a kind of nonsensical thing and perhaps what you would expect to be standard dog fare, a story about looking for a mate and digging and more digging and calling out and finally feeling hungry. Nira says, it doesn’t really have an ending. And Majnoun replies: “It has a very moving ending. Is it not sad to be caught between desires?”

We anthropomorphize our pets anyway, don’t we, and most animals? By some strange act of trickery, Alexis allows us to see dogs in kind of the way we already imagine them–so, we are really not all that surprised with the stuff that these dogs do and think–and because the dog language in this novel is not, initially, human language, it’s even easier for the reader to be convinced of this reality. Only when the dogs start conversing with human beings in English is our credulity kind of pushed to the limit–but again, we should not have a problem with this, right? We know we are not reading realistic fiction–we know this is fantasy, or fantastic, or speculative, or, as the author points out on the title page, it’s “apologue” (a word I had never heard until I picked up this novel) a moral fable, especially one with animals as characters.

So what are its morals? I think there is much here about the nature of things–the nature of happiness, the nature of dog, of humanity, of the symbiotic relationship between the two, about companionship, about finding one’s true nature, about the way we die and qualitatively, how. The power of poetry, whether it lasts or not. The poet dog–despite Alexis’s funning with his art, is maybe, ultimately, the hero of this tale. Morals. It’s not like an Aesop moral, an admonition against or for a particular behavior. I struggle teaching theme to my students and I often warn them about turning theme into “the moral of the story.” Themes have moral implications, I say, but they are not often, morals per se. Don’t do this. Do that instead. Not so much. Rather, and I think this novel achieves this in flying colors: Fifteen Dogs tells us about how things are, not how they should be.

To conclude, I would like to give thanks to the gods for dogs and this novel, but especially, thanks to Terri Ford, who gifted me this book, who is a lover of dogs, and a poet of extraordinary gifts. Her collection of poems, Hams Beneath the Firmament, is a marvel. She is one of the most wildly inventive and playful poets I have ever read. With her permission, let’s close this week’s blog with a poem by Terri Ford from Hams Beneath the Firmamentnot a dog poem–but an animal poem nonetheless, one in her series of poems about Budgies–which is a bird, by the way, a bird that some people have as pets.

Death to the Budgie: A Public Service Announcement

There’s a menace wields a skillet: Teflon is the silent killer.
The budgie life is a life of PERIL. Beware of anything on this list:
burning candles, scented candles, plug-in air fresheners (deadly oil
that seeps), air conditioners, drafts, monsoons. If you deign let
your budgie out: ceiling fan blades, dastard children (hight pitch, sudden
moves), halogen lamps (death by flame), doors in motion, bathtubs, sinks
& toilets. Enjoy your budgie. Keep him safe
from the proverbial glass full or half (he could drown!!),
bookshelves budgie could fall behind, electric cords, your goddamned

feet, dogs, cats, yarn, open windows, and of course the drunk
with her tiny window of judgment opening cage doors on a lark.

Terri Ford

There is just so much to love about this poem. But I chose it because I think it’s a fitting parallel to this lovely novel. It’s a dangerous world out there for dogs, people, and budgies. We gots to be careful. We have to take care of each other and our animals. We try to avoid becoming the playthings of the gods, the fates, and/or stupid, dumb, bad luck. Thank you so much for tuning in. So long. Stay cool. Be kind. Cheers. Take care!

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The Book I Read: Rock Star Fiction, Erasure, and Mother Love

(Books discussed in this blog: Wolf in White Van, John Darneille; Her Read, Jennifer Sperry Steinorth, and Paddock, Mary Lou Buschi)

In April of 2019 I thought I would begin a series of book review blog entries titled after one of my favorite early Talking Heads songs, “The Book I Read.” So I did that. The trouble is: that first entry was the only entry! You know what they say: the best laid plans something something blah blah blah. Today, two years later and some change, I still think it’s a good idea. I am a person that is perpetually in a state of dissatisfaction about how much I read; every year of my life since leaving a formal education program where I am pretty much forced into the endeavor, I vow to read more, and specifically, to read more for pleasure. “The Book I Read” series seemed to be a tidy way to hold myself accountable, both for the reading and for the other thing I’d like to be doing more often–writing. And, too, I think the review, while I know nothing about how to do one properly, keeps me engaged in an activity I have always found, as an English teacher, to be a pedagogically sound practice: Okay, you’ve read a thing. Write about that experience! And as a student, I always found that my writing about my reading helped me to internalize the experience and to remember more of what I read. Perhaps this practice is why I have a much better book memory than a film memory. All I can tell you about a film I saw two years ago, or even two months ago, is whether or not I liked it. Don’t ask me to tell you what it was about–except to say something like, you know, it took place in outer space, or in the future, or it was about a boy and a dog and some vampires.

Because I am a musician that writes, or a writer who makes music, I have a soft spot, or an affinity, with others like me. Some famous rock musicians are very good writers. My first experience reading a rock star who could really write was Bob Geldof’s autobiography of the late 80’s. I’ve read David Byrne’s stuff. Mark Oliver Everett, The Eels guy. I’ve got Ben Folds on the shelf waiting. With Wolf in White Van, I have my first experience reading a rock musician fiction writer. John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, a band I have been smitten with over the last two or three years, is the author of this gem, and this was my first summer reading project.

Here’s a quick gloss of the premise: a young man, terribly disfigured by an accidental gun shot to the face, makes his way in the world as a role-play game designer, the protocols of which are extremely lo-fi. For a subscription fee, his customers play his RPG through written correspondence–that’s right, letters. He sends them a scenario, they send him a kind of narrative account of the choices they make, and in return, he sends them options for their next “move.” There are a few key dramatic arcs in this novel–or, a few key questions that provide readers with the impetus to keep on trucking. One: how did he fuck up his face? Two: is he responsible for the deaths of two of his players–killed no less in the process of “literally” acting out the scenarios in Sean’s RPG? How does one so disfigured navigate the world? Why doesn’t he seek plastic reconstructive surgery? What’s up with his parents? Is a relationship between Sean and his childhood friend Kimmy possible post-accident?

I liked reading this novel. Darnielle can really craft a sentence, and the novel is evocative, poetic, sometimes funny, and philosophically engaging, cerebral. It can also be frustrating. The first big question, how’d he fuck up his face, is ultimately answered, but we are made to wait until the very end to find out–and the answer is not altogether clear or satisfying. The other seemingly big question about the deaths of his customers is answered rather economically before we’re really half way through the novel–it turns out for the reader to be a kind of dashed expectation–at least it felt that way for me, as I expected it to be a key plot feature. Perhaps neither of these questions are the important ones, and it seems that Wolf in White Van may not be a novel driven by plot–but rather, by voice, by character; and the thing that moves us through as we bip back and forth in time with our narrator should really be the psychology of this guy, unraveling and understanding his nihilism despite his privileges and gifts. Certainly, the key might be in the unpacking of this potential metaphor of the Role-Play Game. People spend a whole heck of a lot of time pretending to be in a world that doesn’t exist, in the same way that people who are not gamers at all spend a considerable amount of their time on the planet skirting reality.

This next thing, Jennifer Sperry Steinorth’s Her Read, is unlike anything I have ever seen. It is manifestly unique. The book, about 260 pages long, is a single poem–a poem in a form we call an erasure. We have an erasure, essentially, when a poet has taken an existing non-poetry text and created something new and unique through the process of blocking out significant chunks of the original. I have come to know it as a common teaching technique in writing classes where the goal is to have students thinking about language and the various choices poets make–while simultaneously easing the anxiety around the blank page–everything is there for you already; you just have to find it. It’s like sculpting–you remove stuff in order to discover the shape or the image or the meaning inside. Super fun. I’ve only encountered erasure poems by serious poets on a few occasions, most notably, Tracy K. Smith’s erasure poem from the Declaration of Independence, a poem that totally transforms and reframes our understanding of American history.

But Steinorth’s poem is not simply an erasure–it is, as the cover announces, a “graphic poem.” It is a full color printing replete with drawings, photos, diagrams, and replications of the original source–a book originally published in 1931 called The Meaning of Art by Herbert Read–so that the reader can visually see Steinorth’s white out erasures, her doodling, her coloring, her stitching, her cutting and pasting, her manipulation of classic paintings–and the ghost of the original text, sometimes attempting to peak its way out from under the white-out, sometimes appearing vividly around the new poem, crossed out against Steinorth’s circled choices or otherwise as a kind of backdrop or wall paper out of which the new text or an art image leaps out. Without saying anything about the poem’s subject matter or themes, I must begin by just saying what a blast this piece is to read. It is tremendous fun. It gives new meaning to what folks sometimes say about any literary work–that the reader must learn HOW to read it. On almost every page, we are faced with a new kind of puzzle, sometimes a straightforward and easy adjustment, other times diabolically difficult. And, decidedly, it is just a beautiful thing, an art object as well as a literary artifact.

But what’s this poem about? And is it a good poem? I am a poetry lover, not a poetry scholar. I don’t think of myself as much of a critic–only that I know when I’m reading a poem if I’m enjoying myself or not, if I’ve understood the poem or not, or if I’m able to appreciate the various moves the poet is making. I’ve already confessed that I enjoyed myself thoroughly reading Her Read. But it is what I would call a difficult poem–in that it’s meaning is allusive–or rather, that my understanding while I read was tentative, slippery. I take full responsibility for that. I can say, though, that Eleanor Wilner’s introduction is astounding and astoundingly helpful, and the author’s preface, “Her Apologia,” is also edifying. Perhaps most helpful is the revelation that the source text, The Meaning of Art by Herbert Read, makes mention of exactly zero women artists–and in a subsequent edition from the fifties, only ONE. So–my biggest take away from this beautiful book is that the poem is a kind of reclamation of the history of art by and for women writers and painters and art enthusiasts. This is after all, her read, her reading, Steinorth’s illumination of what was missing in Herbert Read’s original text–and yet, present all the same! I just blew my own mind right there. I doubt this is accidental: the whole time I was reading I kept thinking of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I bet Steinorth would consider that pretty good company.

Finally, I arrive at Mary Lou Buschi’s Paddock, a volume of poetry so sparse and spacious, even at 64 pages, that it begs to be read more than once. So I did that. Outside of preparing for a writer’s workshop on a manuscript, I don’t think I’ve ever read a complete volume of poetry cover to cover more than once within the space of a couple of days. I felt it necessary perhaps to revel in its weirdness. That’s true. Or maybe I thought I’d understand it much better the second time around. That checks out, but still, I must confess, my understanding feels limited, superficial. Poetry like this makes one especially thankful for blurbs on the back covers, which, in the poetry world, are often little mini-essays in and of themselves. In the effort towards stepping away from Paddock with anything like an “understanding,” Patrick Donnelly’s blurb on the back cover was immeasurably helpful. He doesn’t have the answers either–but his speculating about what could be was a tremendous lifeline. Like Her Read, I found this volume to be a difficult but enormously rewarding reading experience. My own poetry, and (surprise surprise) the poetry I like best, is narrative in nature–where a story is being told or an experience is being described that is rooted in a comprehensible world–even if that world is exceedingly weird. I also enjoy lyric poetry that describes an emotional response or teases out a philosophical territory–and yet still is grounded somehow in a familiar world. The most rewarding reading experiences where neither of the above approaches, narrative or lyric, seem to be relevant or important, is in my deep reading over the years of Samuel Beckett. His disembodied voices, his gallows humor, his vaudevillian approach to the deepest existentialist questions, has been some of the most satisfying reading of my life. Paddock reminds me of Beckett more than anything else, and in particular, his play Waiting for Godot.

In Paddock we have three primary voices, girl 1 and girl 2, and a chorus. The chorus does what choruses do: sets the scene, provides commentary, maybe helps interpret the proceedings, lends a kind of mythic aura to the whole. The girls are our main characters–but in actual text real estate, their lines and their conversations are clipped, truncated, brief, and, like the conversations between Vladimir and Estragon from Godot, strangely surreal, comical, absurd. And like their Beckett counterpoints, they are on a mission it seems, not one of waiting, but one of looking, searching–and of trying at one and the same time to leave and to arrive. What are they looking for? Who are they leaving or hoping to join? Mother. And this, thankfully, is given us right out of the gate by the chorus: “Once, as there are many,/time stretches infinitely,/2 girls set forth,/to find a mother,/who is she,/who is I,/who is Dear.” Now the mysteries of this collection, similarly to the mysteries of Godot, are questions the reader may have that the text of the drama does not answer explicitly. Where are these two girls? In what state? Are they dead? Are they about to be born? Clearly, (I just said “clearly”) they are in some kind of liminal space. How are the girls related, or are they? What trauma has their “mother” experienced and by whose hands? Do they have the same mother or different ones? Is “mother” literal or metaphorical, symbolic? These are huge unanswerable questions–but again, like in Godot, the pleasure and the meaning is in NOT getting the answers you seek, but instead, more questions. In the end. . . No, I’m not going to give away the ending!

Paddock is not just a collection of poems–it is a singular and difficult drama. The more I think about it, the more likely I am to give it a third reading. It is beautiful and weird, nightmarish and strange, puzzling and profound.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a wrap on my second attempt in two years at a blog about books I am reading in the series I have called “The Book I Read.”

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The Book I Read: The Trouble With Men, Indeed

Photo on 3-7-19 at 4.30 PM #2

In this fourth month of 2019 I am making good on two of my new year’s resolutions, one, to write more, and two, to read more. I begin this endeavor by writing a poem every day for a month, while simultaneously writing more about what I’m reading more. Let’s start with this. For me, there have become three kinds of reading:

  1. reading the stuff I’m teaching (over and over again, because I have never felt able to teach a book that I am not reading along with my students, no matter how well I know the work),
  2. reading for pleasure (a thing I’m rarely able to do because I’m spending so much time rereading in preparation for teaching, and, as good as I think I am at it, I am a slow reader), and
  3. fake reading (skimming articles on the web, posts on facebook, sneaky advertisements I happen to be interested in–all things that require little if any deep attention.

My new year’s resolution, more specifically, is to do more pleasure reading, less fake reading, but I’ll have to hold steady on the reading of literature I’m teaching, again, because I have to–not because anybody cares, but because I would not be able to teach it well otherwise. Maybe some people care about that, but no one’s checking in with me, if you know what I mean. It’s not likely that any kid or adult would EVER ask me, Mr. Jarmer, have you done the reading for today? No matter: I have done the reading.

It is my intention to start reviewing the books I read here (responding to, really: I don’t know anything about writing reviews). And I have landed on this title for a new series: “The Book I Read,” after the Talking Heads song. If you have never heard it, you’ve got homework before you read another word. ’77 was a good year.

At any rate, the first book I have read this year that I was not reading in preparation for teaching is The Trouble With Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power by David Shields.

I’ve read The Trouble with Men I think three times now. Like in his recent books, most notably Reality Hunger and Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump, David Shields has continued to carve out what seems to be a totally new genre of literary essay: the mosaic, the collage—a work that, while it features at its center the writer’s thesis and his anecdotes and evidences delivered in short micro-bursts of lively prose paragraphs, is surrounded by a swirl of other voices, quotes from the famous and un-famous, dead and alive alike, shedding light and perspective and support for and arguments against everything that the author says. It’s exhilarating. It’s like being at the best party ever, where the conversation is consistently scintillating, and no one is too drunk to drive.  While Reality Hunger challenged the primacy of fiction as a literary form, and Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump theorized about our president’s self-loathing, this book here is about sex. Well, it’s about much more than sex—as the subtitle suggests–it’s also about, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power, all words, though, still, considerably bound up with sex.

Framed as a weird kind of love letter to his wife, Shields explores all of these subtopics through the lens of his marriage and his sexual history and his sadomasochistic leanings. There’s danger here—which provides the dramatic tension—on a couple fronts. First, Shields indicates that his partner was less than enthusiastic about the book. “It’s so perfect that you don’t want me to write this book (because you don’t want to read it); therefore, I have to write it. So, too, if you were fine with me writing it, I’d have no desire to write it.” And two, it strikes me as dangerous because this is the stuff that everyone lives through, thinks about, and deals with, but that no one ever or rarely ever talks about. The book is an embodiment against the taboo of sexual discourse, and I find it challenging, brilliant, sometimes offensive, puzzling, brave, inspiring, and, obviously, worthy of rereading.

It is a book that defies summary, in part, because of its discursiveness. While each part of the book has its own title and seems to be organized around a theme, each paragraph will sometimes move in surprising directions, from, say, a childhood memory of his sister or his parents, to a quote from Susie Bright about pornography, to some commentary about a famous sportscaster, actor, athlete, to a direct address back to the “audience” of the work, his wife. In this way, the pieces of the mosaic are speaking to each other and even though to me sometimes the connections seem oblique, I am along for the ride the entire time. Reading Shields’ work is sometimes like channel surfing or having a dozen tabs open at once, and yet there’s method in’t. It just requires some attention–which is strange and paradoxical: we’re forced to move quickly from idea to idea, as many as eight to ten times on a single page, while simultaneously being asked to pay close attention.

I’m trying now, in conclusion, to say something sum-upish. How about a question or two or several that might approach the center of what I think this work is about: How well do our spouses or our romantic partners know us? How well do we know them? What secrets are we keeping? How vulnerable can we allow ourselves to be? What are the risks? While we long for intimacy, why do we have such difficulty achieving it? Why is it so difficult to talk about sex in this culture? What’s up with the uniquely American struggle between purity and perversity? Why so much shame and guilt? And perhaps, finally, what are the inter-relationships between sex, love, marriage, porn, and power? Can you have any of these without the others? What happens when sex is loveless, or when love is sexless, or when the question of power is absent from porn, or when porn is absent from love, marriage, sex? It’s becoming nonsensical. I guess the point is that none of these questions have easy answers, so perhaps the form Shields has chosen, the collage, the mosaic, is necessary, a multitude of voices between the same covers, in order to even begin to unlock these mysteries. Shields knows the topic is too grand to cover all by himself, so he invited a bunch of friends to help him out. I happen to be one of them, for which I am both grateful and mortified.

 

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