Monday, July 17, 2006

The New Yorker short story

So I've been reading my subscription to The New Yorker, right?, now that it's been lapsed for a year or more. Just finished the third of the stories in last June's "Debut Fiction" issue.

There's a photo of the three debutantes, "Uwen Akpan, 34; Karen Russell, 23; and Justin Tussing, 34" posed in what looks like the storage room of "the Strand Book Store." Uwen is black, perhaps an African immigrant -- one might guess that from his story, which is set in Nairobi, Kenya. Karen is a bright-eyed mousy blond, her long pale arms bare. Justin has rectangular glasses, a shadow on his jaw.

None gives a story to which I wish to return. Not saying they're bad. They all do that New Yorker short story thing where the story doesn't resolve so much as it stops. I'm getting used to it, sort of. A situation is presented, characters drawn, conflicts grow and begin to make things difficult, then a complication arises. As the characters realize they are facing a new situation, the story stops and the new situation is not quite addressed.

In Uwen's story the oldest boy in a street family is the hope of the family. They're putting aside money so he can go to school. Even his eldest sister who is hooking saves money for his sake. The boy is conflicted, ashamed to be so favored when all the others (especially the elder sister whom he looks up to) are obviously stuck, no school, few prospects. Sister is planning to move out (the family lives in a storage box); when she comes to get her things, the boy runs away. End of story.

In Karen's story two brothers (one of whom narrates) are searching for their little sister's body. She was swept out to sea and the brothers blame themselves. There's a mysterious element in that the older boy finds a pair of water goggles that supposedly reveal ghosts. Will they see their sister's ghost? No. Unless that glow that suffuses the grotto is her ... I guess this story comes closest to resolution. But Karen's young. I'm sure she'll wise up.

Justin's story has a teen boy developing a crush on his pretty young teacher. There's a crazy wise hobo who speaks like an oracle, penetrating yet inexplicable. There's a family that's just a touch quirky. Just when it looks like the (secret) relationship with teacher might develop into something deeper (or she might dump him) she tells him her ex-husband has called and is threatening to come to town. "'I'll protect you from him,'" he says. "That's the type of life I wanted to lead when I was seventeen." Boy and teacher hold hands. End of story.

It's easy to imagine each as a novel excerpt. That they end where they end doesn't seem at all inevitable. The stories don't wrap up. In fact with many NYer short stories I have the feeling more is about to happen than we've so far been allowed to see. Having invested in the characters, having taken the time to get to know the situation they're in, I confess to feeling a little frustration at this abrupt manner of closing up shop. Well ... what happened then? How'd it turn out?

Endings are artificial, I suppose. But then so is a story. In a sense I've come to like that little feeling of frustration. I would prefer resolution. But it's kind of like leaving the table hungry, you know. You want more. You think more, maybe. And, playing that metaphor out, you end up snacking.

Monday, July 10, 2006

books bought

I walked downtown about noon to go to the gym. I was feeling kinda blue but physically felt pretty good. When I have a day without obligations and I’m not sore & worn out I get to the gym. That’s about once a week. I did the FitLinxx routine on the weight machine – I punch in my code and the computer tells me when last I lifted weights then at each station tells me how much weight I lifted that last time and how many reps. It’s nice not to have to remember.

I ate lunch afterward at Panini -- an artichoke hearts sandwich, a cup of coffee, and one of their rich chocolate cookies. I wrote in my diary and read a couple pages of The Ohlone Way, a book about the lifeways of the people who lived in the SF Bay Area before the arrival of Europeans.

I haven’t been to Comic Relief in two or three weeks so I figured I’d poke around there on the way home. First I stopped at Half Price Books. I checked out the clearance shelves and there were a lot of mildly interesting books filling the clearance shelves. A worker was boxing up books that had sat too long and refilling the space with new clearances. I drifted by the children’s section and there was a new Oz thingie, something called, I think, Everything Oz, which quotes from various Oz books and Oz-related sources and features illustrations & doodads from around the world. I slid it back onto the shelf. Since I read Born Free last year and since I own the third book Joy Adamson wrote about Elsa the lioness, Forever Free, I’ve had my eye out for Living Free, in which Elsa gives birth to and raises a litter of cubs. A handsome hardcover was waiting for me today. I flipped through it. I’d been hoping for a cheap paperback but just yesterday I’d been wondering if I ought to fill out a want slip at one of the town’s used bookstores. What, I’d asked myself, was I willing to pay? Ten bucks? This copy was $5.98. I tucked it under my arm and made a final swing by the graphic novels and DVDs.

At Comic Relief I let myself be seduced by De: Tales, a collection of “stories from urban Brazil” by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba. The artists are twins. Long heads and bodies and big facial features. The drawings match. And I like the way the perspectives are often looking down from above or up from below. I recently read an anthology called Autobiographix that included one of their stories (the story also appears here). I also bought Alixopulos’ Mine Tonight. Alixopulos is a local and I first became aquainted with his work via a self-published mini-comic I picked up at Comic Relief. His art is scratchy and hungover-looking.

A block later I did a doubletake at the stationery store which is closing. Big signs announced, “50% off marked price.” One can always use office supplies, right? Cheap blank books are good, too. And I found a cheap blank book with an “ostrich print” cover. Plucked ostrich skin? I also bought a spiral notebook for my book log and a USB cable. I saw Joyce Jenkins, who had some new pens in hand. She says she’s putting the finishing touches on a new print issue of Poetry Flash. “There’s always something more to do,” she said. I told her I was working on the Poetry & Pizza calendar for the fall. She said she would try to make it to a reading.

For the last paragraph Sutra has been in my lap. He seems to be tolerating my typing. But he pokes my arm with his nose; why aren’t I rubbing him up?

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

thoughts on reading

Used to be I would only read one book at a time. It was a resolution. I couldn’t plunge into a new book until I finished the one I was reading. So what changed? What made me switch from a single book to a mini-library?

What made me think I could only read one book at a time? Maybe I thought I wouldn’t be able to keep different books separate in my thoughts? I still try to avoid reading more than one novel at a time. Not that I’m fastidious about it. I was just reading Steinbeck’s Pastures of Heaven and that’s certainly different enough from Proust’s Swann’s Way that there’s little likelihood of the two getting mixed up in my head.

One difficulty came with long books. I’m not a fast reader. Was I to stack up comic books while I forced myself to attend only to Tom Jones? Did I really restrict myself to the deathbed edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass until at last I closed the cover on the final page?

Poetry was a big reason I threw aside the notion I could keep myself to a single book. I decided forcing myself to read poem after poem after poem without a break was doing nothing for my appreciation of poetry. Especially when it was difficult or I wasn’t sure I liked it or I plain didn’t like it but felt I ought to keep reading so I could learn something about what not liking meant.

Comics were, too. Many a comic story is played out over several issues. And nobody’s expected to save up all the parts to read at one sitting. If you buy more than one series you’re immersed in more than one ongoing story. It’s not hard to pick back up where the story left off a month previous.

By the time I was going to college, of course, there was no way I would be able to restrict myself to a single book – each class had its own list of books to hurry through. And there were plenty of things I wanted to read that had nothing to do with my classes. I remember thinking I would limit myself to five books – one book of poetry, one book of nonfiction, one novel, one book of short stories, one graphic novel. Something like that.

A book will come along and take over and I’ll just read that until I’ve finished. Then there will be the evenings I read a page or two from each of eight volumes. Books – particularly anthologies of poetry, short stories or whatever – will be pursued regularly then forgotten for a month or so. There are probably a few books I’ve started and never will finish. But I like to get all the way through a book. I finger the pages, look at the thickness of what’s been read, what waits, ponder what needs resolving in the story or whether I’ll enjoy more of the poems to come than I’ve enjoyed what’s passed.

Monday, July 03, 2006

pile of reading

Tropical Truth: a story of music & revolution in Brazil, by Caetano Veloso

Eyes of Desire: a Deaf Gay & Lesbian Reader, edited by Raymond Luczak

Long Walk to Freedom, the autobiography of Nelson Mandela

The Pastures of Heaven, by John Steinbeck

X-Men, vol 3: nos 22-31, by Roy Thomas & Werner Roth

The New Yorker, the Debut Fiction issue from June ’05

Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust, C.K. Scott Moncrieff translation

Poems for the Millennium, vol 2: From Postwar to Millennium, edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris

The Collected Poems, Sylvia Plath

924 Gilman, compiled by Brian Edge

Kona Village Resort: a Village is a Family, an historical account published by the resort, although no author is credited, “We would like to acknowledge Lani, our Kona Village historian, who worked so tirelessly on this book …”

Liaison, by Joyce Wadler

Parthenon West Review, issue 3, Fall 2003

Snapshots: 20th Century Mother-Daughter Fiction, edited by Joyce Carol Oates & Janet Berliner

The Company of Animals: a naturalist’s adventures in the jungle of Malaya, by Ronald McKie

Saturday, July 01, 2006

D. Jayne McPherson

Material Lost

I forfeited my first and only LTD
to the junkyard in East Palo Alto
my first love to his mother's wishes
I was robbed of my silver coins by
a landlord's son; my federal paycheck
in the mail; of two borrowed IBMs and
one down mummybag by Marilyn in Mendocino

Things disappeared right in front of me
the cross-country snow trail during sunset
those nature lithographs stored at Mother's
my wallet in a phone booth near Boston
that 16th birthday, blue sapphire ring

As punishment, others drifted away
my best friendships Peggy and Sue
from my living out of state; walk-to-school
mate, Terry, from her husband's gunshot
wound; puppy Heidi in old age

But once I lost my voice, my name, my home
Perhaps I must face it: this body
too, slowly dissolves. But who would
be left to count it up
as only recombinant material lost?

-- D. Jayne McPherson

... Got a call from Jayne today. Sorta outta the blue. But it was nice reconnecting. Made me ponder what of hers I might have in the house. My eyes lit on an issue of The Tomcat, a poetry zine. It was sticking out of a box of papers I need to file. There were, what, five or six issues of The Tomcat. It declares itself, "a literary showcase for Northern California poets." I knew many of the poets editor Richard Benbrook published (& I knew Richard). I like Jayne's poem better than the poem of mine that appears in the same issue. My poem was from a series of poems in which a character named Bert used the telephone in various (metaphorical?) ways. I remember writing several Bert poems, writing them quickly so I would have more poems to mail out to magazines. I thought they were as good as/better than many of the poems I was seeing in the lit mags. Someday I'll revisit them. The one in Tomcat isn't bad. But I would have to fiddle with it some before republishing.

I like the catalog of things in "Material Lost" ... I don't like the word "recombinant" ... I remember not knowing what an "LTD" was ...

There are poets I didn't know back in 1990 (when this Tomcat was published) that are now familiar to me. Dorothy Jesse Beagle runs a poetry reading series at a cafe in Berkeley. John Selawsky ... is he the Berkeley School Board member and Green Pary activist? Jaimes Alsop started the webzine, The Alsop Review. Gary Mex Glazner ... same poet who first hosted poetry slams in this area?

There are poets who have since have died: Judy Stedman, Paul Mariah, William Talcott ... I knew the first two and met the third more than once.