Sunday, July 31, 2005

Quite a discussion ...

My post of last week, A Literary visit ... has elicited quite a few comments, all of them interesting. But I found one comment in particular especially interesting. SteveD offered what he called his "two cents":
... emotions run high around Kerouac. The same's true about the nebulous grouping we call "the Beats." Regardless of who makes our Beat cut, the impact has been considerable. Yes, conspicuous lifestyles can become the focus of our attention. Kerouac expended quite a bit of energy both in his books and in his magazine articles (many of them collected in Lonesome Traveler) promoting and commodifying the Beat lifestyle as the place to be and to be free, to create better art and better social relations. His art led to and fed the art of musicians (Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Jim Morrison, etc.) and writers (Ginsberg, Burroughs, Pynchon, etc.) alike. Visions of Gerard, a particularly idiosyncratic Kerouac novel (yes, even for Kerouac), did well in my last Kerouac class. My three favorite Kerouac novels are Visions of Cody, The Subterraneans, and Desolation Angels, but most Kerouac novels appeal on some level. That is, they appeal to me. Just as "Howl," "Kaddish," and "Sunflower Sutra" do. They needn't register power or appreciation or feeling (whatever you want to call it) with everyone to have worth as literature separable from the notorious lives that produced them. Taste is taste. When I teach Kerouac, I teach the books and it isn't long before Kerouac On-the-Roaders (the kids who romanticize the lifestyle) see complexity and artful intent and execution. They also see failure and sadness. And as it should be, some students just don't dig it. I can't think of any writer's work that everyone should revere.
I especially agree that Kerouac's -- or any other books -- "needn't register power or appreciation or feeling (whatever you want to call it) with everyone to have worth as literature." I have never been able to get into George Eliot, but I would never deny that she has literary merit. Moreover, as Van Wyck Brooks once pointed out, a work of literature need not be perfect in order to have value as literature. Theodore Dreiser is a fairly clunky writer, but his works have power. Most people would agree that Faulkner is a great writer. But he can also be uneven. J.B. Priestly wrote that "within the limits of fifty pages [Faulkner] can be one of the best and one of the worst novelists in the world." Priestley cites Light in August as an example. He says it begins "wonderfully, so that we feel we are reading a masterpiece." But later on, he says, it "involve[s] us in all manner of turgid and dubious stuff, like a dream half-remembered but grandiloquently related."
But I digress. I think SteveD's students should count themselves blessed to have such a passionate teacher. I hope he can encourage them to toss in their own two cents when classes resume.
From John O'Hara to Jack Kerouac. Two American writers who wrote about the towns they grew up in. Who inspired some strong reactions in readers and neither of whom has probably be given a fair shake by critics. Also very, very different.

America's bard ...

A century and a half ago this month Walt Whitman self-published the first edition of Leaves of Grass. On Friday, the Wall Street Journal ran a characteristically over-the-top but altogether accurate assessment of Whitman by Harold Bloom.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Notice the play of light on the walls cast from Christopher Ries's sculptures. Posted by Picasa

One of Christopher Ries's glass sculptures in his studio gallery. Posted by Picasa

And another.  Posted by Picasa

Vacation Days (Part II)

During our first visit to Lizza Studios, gallery director Betsy Green suggested that Debbie and I visit the studio of glass sculptor Christopher Ries in Keelersburg. She called ahead for us and it turned out that Ries himself would be there. It was only a fifteen-minute drive away, so we went. I know what you're thinking. "Glass sculpture -- what's that? Something like Steuben glass figures?" Well, if you've clicked on the link to his Web site you already know that what Ries does isn't remotely like that. Steuben glass figures are splendidly crafted manufactured objects. But, like all manufactured objects, they are short on individuality.
Ries's sculptures are nothing if not individual. He takes 3,000-pound blocks of crystal glass, cuts them where the flaw is (like a diamond cutter), then carves the somewhat smaller block into an abstract form, but into the form another form -- a flower, say -- will be etched, which will in turn be refracted by the light striking the sculpture and projected throughout the form. Sculpture is not usually transparent. Because of their transparency, because of the way the light, striking them, changes the pieces as the light moves, and as you move around to see the pieces from different angles, Ries's works seem to take on a further dimensionality.
Ries himself is an impressive fellow, absolutely fascinating to talk to, which Debbie and I did for a couple of hours. Many years ago I was a gallery director. I've met a lot of artists in my time. All of the best usually like to talk, not about themselves, or even about individual works, but rather about the material they work with and what goes into the process of working with it. Talking to Christopher Ries about carving glass is like talking to a mystic about God. He gives the impression of a man for whom a particular vision of -- yes, I'm going to use that word -- beauty is never for long out of his mind.
I do not mean to suggest he is some hopelessly impractical visionary. Visionary yes, but impractical -- not at all. His studio is an old barn, and has been wondrously restored -- by him. It's on a farm only yards from the Susquehanna. Ries himself grew up on a farm in Ohio, not far from the part of the state that gave the world some of its most famous pottery, including Roseville. Ries's mother wanted him to be a musician and in some way, looking at the play of light striking his sculptures, or the play of light on the wall cast by those sculptures, that is what he has become -- a composer and arranger of light. Light is an integral part of each work and he calculates the effect the light will have while he works. This is extraordinary art.

Friday, July 29, 2005

An important anniversary ...

On this date in 1905 in Jönköping, Swed., Dag Hammarskjöld was born. He was a great man, and certainly the greatest to hold the position of United Nations Secretary-General. He also wrote a book, Markings, which was the first I ever reviewed professionally. Markings, which Hammarskjöld described as "a sort of White Book concerning my negotiations with myself - and with God," was in the news earlier this year, when questions were again raised as to the accuracy of the translation, done by poet W.H. Auden in collaboboration with Leif Sjöberg. I had some questions myself at the time, but not about the Swedish, which I remain incompetent to comment upon. I thought the translation of one part of Hölderlin's "Hälfte des Lebens" was peculiar (I haven't the text in front of me, so I can't be more specific). Nevertheless, I think that Markings should perhaps be read with caution, but it should be read. And maybe somebody should do a new translation.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Lizza Fine Art Studios in Tunkhannock used to be a roller skating rink. Hence, the fine hardwood floors. Posted by Picasa

This matted collage looks like layers colored bits of paper -- and the original is precisely that. But this is a giclee print scanned at Lizza Fine Art Studios in Tunkhannock. Posted by Picasa

Vacation Days (Part I)

For me much of the pleasure derived from a vacation is negative: not having to answer email, or take or return phone calls, or open, sort and shelve books. Still, I don't leave my job behind entirely, for the simple reason that I like what I do. Who wouldn't? I read books. I get to sound off about them. And I get paid for it.
On this last vacation I managed to read about six books, write four reviews, a couple of poems, and some miscellaneous things.
But it was far from being a busman's holiday. My wife, Debbie, paints and sculpts, and when she noticed there was a gallery in Tunkhannock she wanted to go. And go we did to Lizza Fine Art Studios, which proved to be a very nice exhibition space with beautiful hardwood floors (it used to be a roller skating rink). But it had more than just paintings on the walls (by Nancy Ruch Kim, a graduate of Moore College of Art & Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts) and sculptures and ceramics on pedestals (the former by Douglas Leidy, the latter by Mark Chuck).
We got to talking with owner Bob Lizza and gallery director Betsy Green and learned that, thanks to Lizza Studios, little Tunkhannock, Pa., has won itself a place in the sun in the world of art. Seems that New York's mighty Metropolitan Museum of Art had a tapestry and a painting scanned there.
Also scanned there was a painting titled "La Madonna Della Luce" ("Our Lady of Light") painted by the Vatican artist of the year, Natalia Tsarkova. (The painting was commissioned by the Primavera Fine Art Foundation for Pope John Paul II and the foundation says it has been informed that it was one of the last works of art blessed by the Pontiff before his death. The painting -- which represents the Mysteries of Light the Pope added to the rosary -- will eventually hang in the Vatican, but right now it's on tour.
Why was the scanning done in Tunkhannock? Turns out Lizza Studios has one of the few Cruse CS 285 ST Scanners in the world. Which means they can make the best giclee prints imaginable. Just how good these prints are was brought home to Debbie and me when we were looking at a matted collage by Marvin Baker in the back of the studio. Betsy remarked that it was one of their showpieces and Bob suggested to Debbie that she reach over and pluck off one of the slips of paper the collage was made of. She asked him if he was sure he wanted her to do that and he assured her it was OK. Of course, when she reached over to do it, she found there was nothing to pluck: It just looked vividly two-dimensional.
And this first visit to the Lizza Studios was only the beginning of our artistic adventures in Tunkhannock.

An interesting date ...

Today's a date filled with literary anniversaries. Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was born on this date in 1844. Twenty-two years later, on the same date, Beatrix Potter, the creator of Peter Rabbit, was born. And finally, in 1907 on July 28, Malcolm Lowry, author of Under the Volcano was born.
In 1655, Cyrano de Bergerac died in Paris.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Roger Simon links to a fine piece on Ibsen by Theodore Dalrymple. A key passage:
However, most people find it more comforting to believe in perfectibility than in imperfectibility—an example of what Dr. Johnson called the triumph of hope over experience. The notion of imperfectibility not only fans existential anxieties, but also—by precluding simple solutions to all human problems—places much tougher intellectual demands upon us than utopianism does. Not every question can be answered by reference to a few simple abstract principles that, if followed with sufficient rigor, will supposedly lead to perfection—which is why conservatism is so much more difficult to reduce to slogans than its much more abstract competitors.
This is worth bearing mind when reading this dialogue in Foreign Policy between Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, and Bjorn Lonborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist.
Dalrymple is, I believe, right about the Ibsen plays he discusses. But I think Ibsen's work as a whole ought to be judged by his later plays, especially The Master Builder and John Gabriel Borkman. In these, the egoism at the center of the others is itself weighed in the balance and found wanting.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

A literary visit ...

Pottsville was only a little out of the way en route to the house in Vosburg — about five miles west of Tunkhannock — where my wife and I spent the last couple of weeks. So we stopped and spent a night in Pottsville, where novelist John O'Hara was born a century ago. While there I read “The Girl on the Baggage Truck,” the first of the three novellas that comprise Sermons and Soda-Water, one of his best books, published in 1960, a decade before his death.
O’Hara was pretty much persona non grata in Pottsville while he was alive, but now there are markers around and about the town indicating sites that served as the originals for those in O’Hara’s “Gibbsville.” The model for the John Gibb Hotel is right at the corner of Centre Street and Mahantongo (which O’Hara renamed Latenengo). Next door is the office of the Pottsville Republican, O’Hara’s Gibbsville Standard. Across the street is the Reading Iron and Coal Co., a few doors away is the building O’Hara was born in, and where his physician father’s office remained after the family moved up the street (on the other side, across from the mansions). Not too far up, right next to the Yuengling brewery, is St. Patrick’s Church, which O’Hara reconsecrated as SS. Peter and Paul.
These places are a matter of yards apart. It seems an extremely small space to have a fictional world from. But maybe not. I suppose we’ve all had the experience of revisiting a place we knew only as small children and being surprised at how small it is compared to how large it loomed in our memory. But we were small when we experienced and that is what we remember. A person sensitive enough while still young might later on easily construct in imagination an entire world out of so large a piece of memory.

This house on Mahantongo Street is where John O' Hara and his family lived. O'Hara renamed the street Letenengo. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Taking a break

A hearty thanks to Katie for filling in for Frank for the past few days. Starting today, Books, Inq. is going on hiatus until Frank gets back in late July.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Read "The Great Switcheroo" and you'll see what I mean

Margaret Talbot has a nice essay about Roald Dahl in this week's New Yorker. She writes that while kids devour his stuff, it puts many adults off—the children's books, anyway. "Dahl’s books regularly show up on the American Library Association’s list of titles that patrons ask to be restricted from young children or removed from the shelves," she writes. Indeed, his stories were often lurid, violent, and eccentric. But that's exactly why kids like them, Talbot says. Virtuous children fight—and win—the good fight, and rotten grownups always get theirs in the end.

Most of Dahl's early stories were for adults, Talbot writes, and while The New Yorker accepted a few early in his career their popularity soon waned. "Dahl's adult stories were crisply, shiveringly enjoyable—rather like "Twilight Zone" episodes—but they showed little compassion or psychological penetration. It was children, it seemed, not adults, on whom Dahl could lavish empathy."

True, they don't brim with benevolence. In one, "Lamb to the Slaughter," a lady gives her disagreeable husband the quietus with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooks and serves it to the cops who come to investigate the murder. But again, that nastiness is Dahl's charm. He could be viciously funny or deliciously droll, and his perceptions were dead-on. I've always remembered this description from "The Way Up to Heaven": "The chauffeur, a man with a small rebellious Irish mouth, didn't care very much for any of this..." And the stories in Switch Bitch, incidentally, are downright scandalous. The two books that make up his memoirs, Boy and Going Solo, bridge the kid-adult gap nicely. No questionable content, lots of exciting accounts from his days as a Royal Air Force fighter pilot, and the underlying sweetness of his worldview—his pro-underdog sentiments, his intense love of family—shines through on every page.



Saturday, July 09, 2005

Zines, found poetry, and other literature for the people, by the people

Hello everyone!

I'm Katie, and I'm delighted to be taking over the Inquirer's books blog for a couple of weeks. Frank was kind enough to mention that I do a print zine on language called The La-La Theory, so I think I'll take the opportunity to tell you about the third annual Philadelphia Zine Fest, which is taking place next weekend.

Last year's fest was a success, and an absolute blast. Zinesters and other artists came from all over the country to pack themselves into the stuffy Rotunda (remember how hot it was last summer?) and share their work. Zines are handmade, one-of-a-kind, self-published journals on every subject imaginable, often traded for other zines or sold for not much more than $1 a copy. I still have copies of Christoph Meyer's lovely, spooky little story, "The Heart Star," with its linoleum block print cover; "The Glovebox Chronicles," a multiple-collaborator collection of road trip stories; "Suburban Gothic" Issue 3.5, a tiny photocopied account of depression; and "The Joy of Tuna," a totally insane photo/word/recipe collage devoted to the wonderment that is canned tuna fish. The zine movement is often considered an early-90s phenomenon, and indeed, that's when it was in the public eye for a hot 15 minutes. But clearly, here in the 21st century, the lively, delightful spirit of the DIY revolution is alive and well.

The La-La Theory takes its name from the oddball term Danish linguist Otto Jespersen (1860-1943) gave to one of the theories of the origin of language: that it was borne of the human need to express love and poetry. Unlikely, theory-wise, but awfully nice. One issue is called "Mrkgnao!", and it's about the ways different languages express animal sounds. (That weird word is the sound Mr. Bloom's cat makes in Ulysses.) I'll also bring a few copies of Word Math, a collection of found poetry I made for last year's fest. Found poetry is exciting because it takes the DIY idea to an even higher level. Essentially, the idea is to make (well, find, really) poetry from any non-poetic context: street signs, rearranged sentences from a physics textbook, you name it. Here's what poet Tom Hansen said about the creation of found poetry:

"Most found poems begin their lives as passages of expository prose. Their intended purpose is to feed easily digestible information to the reader. Nothing could be less poetic. But suddenly poetry is discovered embedded within the prose. The discoverer is someone alert to the possibilities of irony, absurdity, and other incongruities." ("Letting Language Do: Some Speculations on Finding Found Poems," College English 42, 1979)

In other words, the discoverer—the poet—can be anyone. Like me. And you.

Till soon,

Friday, July 08, 2005

Hail and farewell ...

Tomorrow, my wife and I will be taking off for two weeks in a cabin (a very nicely appointed cabin) near Tunkhannock, Wyoming County. We return July 25. So no more blogging for me for awhile. In my absence, the blogging duties will be assumed by Katie Haegele, who reviews young adult novels (and much else besides) for The Inquirer. She's also responsible for a zine about language called The La-La Theory (Katie studied linguistics at Penn). So welcome Katie!

On second thought ...

I realize that, in the luncheon talk I gave at the Franklin Inn Club recently, I overstated my case at one point and I want to clear things up before I take off on vacation. I said it was silly for people talk about reading the Bible literally. "No text, least of all one as rich as the Bible, deserves to be read that way, because it reduces words to mere signs." Allow me to rephrase that: No text as rich as the Bible deserves to be read that way.
But not all texts are rich and not all texts are meant to be. This occurred to me as I thought over some remarks that were made after my talk by Gresham Riley, the former president of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Gresham thought that what I had to say had some bearing on the debate over constitutional interpretation -- the "original intent" people versus the "living document" crowd. At first I was inclined to agree somewhat, but then I thought to myself that one thing I didn't want to suggest was that we can read a text any way we like.
There are necessary limits on our intrepretive freedom. One should, for instance, make sure that one undertsand the words in the sense that the author understood them. Words do accrue meanings over the years and a later sense will not apply to a text written before that sense developed.
Also, there are texts that we want to be unambiguously clear: for instance, the instructions for assembling the toy you bought one of your kids for Christmas.
I do not think the Constitution is a rich text, nor do I think it was meant to be. The problems that arise over interpreting it tend to derive from one or another party wanting it to address what it in fact does not. There is nothing in the Constitution about abortion because no one in 1789 would have thought to put it there.
I think that what we need to do with regard to the text of the Constitution is not align ourselves with any school of interpretation, but rather devote some more of our time to simply reading it for ourselves. After all, before you can determine what a document means, you must first determine as accurately as you can what it says. If more people were better acquainted with the text of the Constitution fewer people would be able to get away with bloviating on it.

Evan Hunter (1926-2005)

Evan Hunter, author of Blackboard Jungle, was perhaps better known as Ed McBain, author of the 87th Precinct novels, the prototype of the police procedural subgenre of crime fiction. Hunter/McBain -- who was born Salvatore Lombino -- died Wednesday. Here is an obit in the Times of London and another in the Daily Telegraph.
In a way, Hunter made a major contribution to the creation of modern youth culture: Richard Brooks' 1955 film version of Blackboard Jungle, starring Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier, was the first film to feature rock music on the sound track -- Bill Haley and the Comets doing "Rock Around the Clock."

Monday, July 04, 2005

Christopher Fry (1907-2005)

One of Margaret Thatcher's most famous lines occurred in response to speculation as to whether she would make an about-turn on her anti-inflationary policies. "To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the U-turn," she said, "I have only one thing to say: You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning!"
She was alluding, of course, to Christopher Fry's play The Lady's Not for Burning, quite a hit in its day, as was Fry himself. The self-centered grousing of John Osborne's Jimmy Porter and the like drove lyrical optimists like Fry out of the theater.
Fry died on Thursday last. Here is an obituary in the Daily Telgraph and another in the Times of London.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Steppenwolf and the Pope ...

Back in May, Chris Bauer had some interesting things to say about Pope Benedict XVI and Hermann Hesse's novel Steppenwolf and ... Lance Armstrong, as well as a few other things. Definitely worth a look.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

A literary birthday ...

I first encountered Hermann Hesse in German class. I don't recall now if it was in high school or college. But the story was called "Der Wolf."
I know I was a sophomore in college when I came upon Steppenwolf. It was an odd Friday noght when I had nothing better to do and I stayed up reading until I finished the book.
I was immensely affected by it (it is also a favorite book of the new Pope).
The version I read was a newly-released Modern Library edition and, except for the New Directions edition of Siddartha, was the only book of Hesse's available in this country at the time (this was at the beginning of 1962). But there was a little bookstore on 15th Street, near Market, that started to stock editions of Hesse's novels published in Britain. Which is how I got to read all of them long before Hesse became a cult author. I haven't read them since and suspect I would not enjoy them as much as I did then. Anymore than I would enjoy being again who I was then.
Hermann Hesse was born on this date in 1877 in Calw, Germany.