Saturday, June 11, 2011

Summer Rain and Cold Beer

(The second in my series of Weekend Riffs. The first: Summer Excuses: the heat and the Heat)

I used to moan about the heat constantly -- I still do on occasion -- but now I play along, no longer demanding escape. Stick out the tongue and exhale. Limp another block. Mark the miles by the sweat on the shirt. Pull beer from ice and let water linger on your wrists.

Use the seasons for their strengths, use their weakness for a laugh. I used to swear the humidity was trying to steal from me. But I like the way the horizon looks cloudy -- no reason to pretend the world is clear.

Sample the suffering. Let the heat suffocate a little, let it kill what need be killed. Let it dry the tears. Set a small fire on your postage stamp of native soil. Let us celebrate, come what may.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Blog Mascot: The Rat Terrier


(The rat terrier at 3-4 months; taken on my camera phone)

The rat terrier gets the 'rat' part of its name from its ability to hunt rats. Teddy Roosevelt brought them into the White House for this very reason. According to Wikipedia: "Purportedly a rat terrier holds the record for most rats killed in a single infested barn: 2501 rats in 7 hours." Unlikely to be true, but this blog often focuses on myth, so it would be out of character not to mention it.


When they get hot, rat terriers look like they're smiling. They are moderate energy dogs: they need their exercise, but also spend a lot of time sleeping. They don't usually grow bigger than 25 lbs. (In the picture above, she's probably a little over 20lbs, and 9-10 months old.)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Pain as Illumination (How Pain Birthed the Modern Hero)

In Kevin Brockmeier's The Illumination, an unexplained event causes wounds to suddenly emit light. Glowing tumors, shining cuts -- "his wounds burned out of him like a fire."
all around the world today we are receiving continuing reports of this strange occurrence: light, pouring from the injuries of the sick and wounded
Wounds can only ever be half-hidden. Brockmeier likely chose this concept because of the images, impressions and visual motifs it enabled. But it also works on a metafictional level.

Pain Makes the Stories Memorable

This pain need not be physical. Robert Olen Butler calls it "yearning." Some speak of characters having "goals," which they do, but it's their pain that most interests us. A hero without pain is quickly forgotten, or quickly discarded. In memorable fiction, pain is not the end, as in sadism or emo; but it lies at the heart.

This is not a call for darker-themed books. Even comedy is driven by pain: this separates the memorable from the mildly amusing. Alienation, misunderstanding, missed opportunities, generational conflict, incompatible desires. The choices must be painful: characters that have it all, or are presented with false choices, slide out of the mind as soon as the book is closed. Dostoevsky continues to be read (and influence) because his characters vibrate with pain.

Much of Myth is Built on Pain

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The New (Very Big) Kids on the Block

ESPN superstar Bill Simmons today launched Grantland, a pop culture web magazine featuring himself and Chuck Klosterman (Fargo Rock City). Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) and Malcolm Gladwell (Blink) are consulting editors. It is backed by ESPN money.

All Interesting Projects are Difficult Projects

In his introduction, Simmons highlights the difficulties even the huge players have in launching these types of creative projects:
I would love to tell you that this website will work, that we'll entertain you five days a week and blend sports and pop culture successfully. The truth is, I don't know for sure. This site will keep changing over the next few months...
The site design is refreshingly simple, unlike ESPN's densely packed multimedia onslaught. There's not yet much content, but that will surely change.
With every launch, there comes a point when you grab everyone else's hand, you hold on tight, and you jump. You're never really ready.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Steal My Innocence, Use a Bulldozer if Necessary

becoming a ruin-reader might not be so bad a thing. It could in fact save your life.
The quote comes from Junot Diaz's long article in The Boston Review on apocalypses and what disasters reveal. He uses Haiti as his primary example.
apocalypses like the Haitian earthquake are not only catastrophes; they are also opportunities: chances for us to see ourselves, to take responsibility for what we see, to change. One day somewhere in the world something terrible will happen, and for once we won’t look away.

Drown
The recent #YASaves discussion focused on teen readers finding someone they can relate to in darker-themed books. (My initial response is here.) I want to expand the discussion to include the role of reading in connecting to situations we can't yet relate to.

Yes, art can corrupt, but much of this corruption is good corruption. Some of us need a bit of our innocence taken away. In speaking for myself, I think I speak for others as well. I'm thankful for my lost illusions. I cast them off like shed snake skins.

I try to lose a little innocence each day -- as with kindness, by giving more, I get more back in return.

I'm not saying that readers are better people, or that reading necessarily makes us better people -- simply that some of us need reading to become better people. Or more interesting people. Sometimes this reading is dark. Monotone can't capture the curious mind. We need darkness not to get through trauma, but to see beyond our narrow traumas. (Isn't it time we moved past using "darkness" to suggest evil?)

Taking art to dark places forces us to see beyond our conventions. To be corrupted is to be human. I seek out darker themed books not out of depravity but because I know my knowledge is limited. Some have other ways of processing the world; some have libraries. One man's prophet is another's madwoman. But don't force her into the attic, some of us have a lot to learn.
There is a crack, a crack in everything That's how the light gets in.
(Leonard Cohen, "Anthem")

For some, innocence was suffocation. Some need to steal fire from the gods. You see a bookshelf filled with ugliness. No matter -- we're just happy the bookshelf is filled.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Forever Jung: Why Carl Jung is Still Worth Studying

Memories, Dreams, Reflections
Carl Jung died 50 years ago on this day. Famous first as a follower of Freud, he eventually split with the master when they disagreed over the explanatory power of sex drives. Jung's writing later greatly influenced Joseph Campbell, whose Hero's Journey still has tremendous force in storytelling, particularly in Hollywood, where George Lucas openly used it as a template for Star Wars.

Jung remains influential in depth psychology and dream interpretation, but I'm going to focus on why he's interesting to writers and readers.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Stuff I've Been Reading

I started this series to inspire myself to read more and to get recommendations from brilliant readers. First I'll share what I've been reading, then I'll beg for some of your YA knowledge.
  1. The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald. I was inspired to re-read this after the trading of high school anecdotes that followed my post on Three Great Lessons from High School.
  2. Akhmatova Poems - Anna Akhmatova (translated by D.M. Thomas). A favorite that I revisit often. Also featured in a post this week.
  3. Delirium - Lauren Oliver. A world cured of love. Some brave souls decide the cure is worse than the disease.
  4. The Penelopiad - Margaret Atwood. A riffing on the Odyssey and surrounding myth retold from the perspective of Penelope (Odysseus's wife).
  5. The Book of Job - In preparation for an upcoming post on pain.
DeliriumThe Great Gatsby The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus (Myths, The)

In honor of #YAsaves, I'd love for some recommendations of great YA books. Got a favorite to share?

Why That Terrible WSJ Article is Great for YA

So it may be that the book industry's ever-more-appalling offerings for adolescent readers spring from a desperate desire to keep books relevant for the young... Parents...oughtn't be daunted by cries of censorship. No family is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children's lives.
This WSJ article, "Darkness Too Visible," by Meghan Cox Gurdon, plays the old card of blaming what's new for corrupting the youth. It's long and flimsy. The YA community responded immediately on Twitter with the #YAsaves hashtag, expressing hurt, offense and outrage.

Fahrenheit 451

These articles are perhaps harmful to those who waste time reading them, but they are great for book culture. Books are seen by too many as something thrust upon children by adults in some dreadful effort to force self-improvement and inculcate middle-class values. Reading, like school, is something we grow out of.

Rock music first thrived because the parents didn't understand. Literature needs some of this same energy. Youth need people like Gurdon to dismiss the art so that they can own it. Youth culture needs antagonists. Gurdon, with her criticism, has sold more books than I ever have with my praise. She helps return the magic to reading. Everyone I've sent this article to has expanded their reading list by at least one book.

The article includes a sidebar that recommends Fahrenheit 451 as a solid YA read. The irony of featuring this book in an article that praises censorship makes me wonder if it wasn't the work of a subversive editor. But maybe the WSJ is just that unaware.

The outpouring from the YA community -- writers and readers alike -- has been fascinating, but there's no need to fear this type of marginalization. Youth culture thrives on the margins. Art thrives on the margins. Friends are important, but we can also measure ourselves by our enemies.
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