A bunch of stuff that happened in my book world, February edition

“The most serious charge that can be brought against New England is not Puritanism, but February.” – Joseph Wood Krutch, writer and February-hater.

February is the shortest month of the year, but it likes to do this: blizzard

And then I mostly just want to do this: go away

But fortunately there are a few interesting things happening in the world of books to read and talk about.

Literary Hub to launch in April

The Wall Street Journal reported a story earlier this month about a “Huffington Post for the literary world” to be launched in April.

The site, scheduled to go live on April 8, is called Literary Hub. Focusing on literary fiction and nonfiction, it will present personal and critical essays, interviews and book excerpts contributed by nearly 70 partners ranging from the small press New Directions to heavyweights such as Scribner, Knopf and Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Bookstores and literary magazines such as the Paris Review also will contribute. The site, at lithub.com, will commission original content, including dispatches on the literary scenes in cities across the country, bookstore profiles and a weekly review of books. (Organizers are still discussing whether it should publish its own book reviews.) The site will offer a new book excerpt each day, and a daily roundup of literary news.

The whole thing feels a bit vague at this point. According to its creator, a literary hub is needed because “there’s a gigantic amount of literary content being produced each day but unless you have 10 people looking for it, you won’t find it.” Really? That seems like a statement by someone who just recently heard there’s this thing called “The Internet.” Indeed one of the aims of Literary Hub is to target “literary types who weren’t early digital adopters, and still prefer to read on paper.” Uh, why? Anyhoo, I was curious enough to subscribe. You can read the full article at wsj.com.

Listen to Roxanne Gay in Toronto

The International Festival of Authors and Harbourfront Centre hosted Roxanne Gay in Toronto. The popular writer, professor, blogger and author of Bad Feminist spoke and read from her novel An Untamed State. If you missed it because, well, it’s February in Toronto and you didn’t want to go outside, you can listen to the full talk at NowToronto.com.

An interview with Harper Lee’s editor at Vulture

Assuming you are reading this blog and love books, you have heard that there will be a new book published in July by Harper Lee. Go Set a Watchman is already a bestseller, and in the wake of initial excitement, there’s been some fascinating discussion about exploitation of the elderly and the rights/wishes of an author regarding her work. When an author dies, are we obligated to honour her wishes if, for example, she wants any remaining manuscripts or personal documents to be destroyed? Who owns the letters and journals of a deceased author – a community of literary fans and scholars, or her still living relatives, whose lives may be affected by the publication of documents initially intended to be private? And if an author is still living, but we’re unsure of her capacity to make decisions about her affairs, are we obligated to honour her past wishes more than her present ones? You can read an interview with Harper Lee’s editor at Vulture.com.

Hey, there’s this book called 50 Shades of Grey and they made a movie!

With much heavy-breathing on the part of movie studio executives, the film version of 50 Shades of Grey was released this week, giving the internet the opportunity to turn away from Gamergate, Bill Cosby and whatnot to focus once again on belittling women, their literary tastes, desires, etc. Having personally slogged through 300 pages of the book, with 200 to go, I can honestly say that the discussion around 50 Shades is more enthralling than the book. I haven’t seen the movie yet; the reviews aren’t promising and I’m loathe to fork over the bucks – I’ll wait for the iTunes release. There’s an entertaining review, though, by Monica Heisey at The Hairpin.

Accident at the Sugar Beet at the New Yorker Fiction podcast

The New Yorker Fiction podcast’s latest story is Tom Drury’s Accident at the Sugar Beet, read by Antonya Nelson. Drury’s small-town rural setting is a place where warm neighbourliness lives next to unknowable desires — think walking through a cornfield strewn with ground glass. Accident at the Sugar Beet is funny, touching, and unsettling, and I am ashamed to admit I had never heard of this very fine author. You can listen to the story at The New Yorker, or download the podcast on iTunes.

#treatyoself

I don’t buy books as often as I’d like. I don’t have the budget. But sometimes people give me gift cards, an’ I get to treat myself – ooohh.

All the Songs

So here is All the Songs: The story behind every Beatles release by Jean-Michel Guesdon & Philippe Margotin. It’s not scholarly exactly – much of the information can be found elsewhere, and there are far too many exclamation marks and question marks for the text to feel authoritative.

But there are lots of bits of trivia and photos, so I can read along as I listen to the albums,

drink coffee, look at pictures of cool British birds like these three: Another Girl

                                                                                                                                               and pretend that February in Toronto never happened. Heaven.

Lost and Found in America: The transcendent stories of Denis Johnson

 

Jesus' Son

“That world! These days it’s all been erased and they’ve rolled it up like a scroll and put it away somewhere. Yes, I can touch it with my fingers. But where is it?” — Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son

 

I’ve mentioned here before that one of my very favourite things is the New Yorker Fiction podcast. Writers who have published in The New Yorker select and read a short story by another New Yorker writer. You get to hear not only a wonderful story, but also a writer’s insights into what makes the story work.

In the most recent episode, Donald Antrim reads the story “Work” from Denis Johnson’s short story collection, Jesus’ Son.

Denis Johnson has written poetry, plays, short stories, and novels. He won the National Book Award in 2007 for his novel Tree of Smoke, and his novella Train Dreams was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2012.

I bought Jesus’ Son last year because I loved another story by Johnson, “Emergency”. You can also listen to “Emergency” on the podcast. It’s read by Tobias Wolff, whose story “Bullet in the Brain” is another personal favourite. Ah, so many stories, so little time.

I don’t think the reasons you love a short story are any different than the reasons you love a novel: good writing, characters you care about, a story that keeps you reading. Other than that, it’s hard to say what makes a good short story, because there are so many different ones. There are linked stories that, together, create a narrative arc that’s similar to a novel. There are stories that seem closer to a poem, with words, characters and events crystallized into a single idea. Sometimes events take place in a day, with just a couple of characters, and some stories are longer and span several years. None of these things seem wrong if the story works, but with all that latitude, to create something beautiful is an incredibly difficult thing to do.

The stories in Jesus’ Son are all narrated by an unnamed, heroin-addicted, alcoholic drifter referred to only as Fuckhead.  Most seem imperfectly recalled, with character’s names and other details forgotten, and they jump around in time and place, with little regard, it seems on the surface anyway, for coherent storytelling. We’ll start reading about one event, and Fuckhead will interrupt with “But before any of this . . .”  The first line of the story “The Other Man” is “But I never finished telling you about the two men.” (This is a few stories after a story titled “Two Men”.)

“Work” and “Emergency” are in the middle of Jesus’ Son. In “Work”, the narrator and his friend Wayne spend the day “salvaging” copper wire from abandoned houses, and then go to a bar. In “Emergency”, the narrator and another friend, Georgie, work in a hospital. They steal pills and get completely high, then drive around town in Georgie’s truck. In both stories the action unfolds in a dreamlike sequence of abruptly changing, unpredictable events. It’s both disjointed and coherent in a way that leads you irresistibly through to the end. It’s also very funny sometimes. In “Emergency”, a patient walks into the hospital with a knife in his eye. A doctor is called:

“He peeked into the trauma room and saw the situation: the clerk—that is, me—standing next to the orderly, Georgie, both of us on drugs, looking down at a patient with a knife sticking up out of his face.

‘What seems to be the trouble?’ he said.”

Juxtaposed with a spare landscape of dive bars, hotels, highways and farms, is poetic imagery that reflects Fuckhead’s heightened state, where clouds are like “great grey brains” and everything is freighted with meaning:

“We drove with the windows down. The mild spring evening, after several frozen winter months, was like a foreigner breathing in our faces. We took our passenger to a residential street where the buds were forcing themselves out of the tips of branches and the seeds were moaning in the gardens.”

Quoted out of context, that passage looks crazily overwritten, but in the story it works. Events, characters, dialogue and poetic description are compressed in a few pages, and when combined, explode into an ethereal whole, like layers of pastry in contact with heat.

Fuckhead and the reader are kept afloat by his willingness to see redemption in unlikely places. In “Work” the bartender (“I wish I could remember her name. I only remember her grace and her generosity”) is compared to an angel for her willingness to pour drinks “right up to the lip of a cocktail glass, no measuring . . . You had to go down to them like a hummingbird over a blossom.” In “Emergency”, Fuckhead and Georgie stumble across a drive-in theatre in a snowstorm. “On the farther side of the field, just beyond the curtains of snow, the sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity.”

I find one of the most revered short story writers of our time, Alice Munro, very difficult to read. There’s an inevitability to the bleak trajectory of her character’s lives, so full of missed opportunities and thwarted desires, that I feel a chill when I’m done reading. Johnson’s drifters and losers, by comparison, have it much harder than Munro’s characters. But along with prose of surpassing beauty, there’s a redemptive transcendence in the stories, and by the end of Jesus’ Son, as Fuckhead struggles to go straight, he feels an optimistic hope that “there might be a place for people like us”, and we feel it too.

City sunset