'Not From Here,' stories by Nathan Deuel

Building a beautiful arch

Picture showing Armenians killed during the Ar...

Image via Wikipedia

Christopher de Bellaigue, in his new book Rebel Land, describes the “petty and dishonorable” feeling of  interviewing old women in the small town of Varto, where the author is researching a book about painful and sensitive subjects — genocide, Armenians, Turks.

Why not let sleeping dogs lie? Why not leave this poor woman alone, why jog her memories? And then arch of your design starts to fill, and it seems like a beautiful arch, with lessons for us all, and you press greedily on.

Writing in The New York Review of Books several years ago, de Bellaigue wrote  about a period of Turkish history. For his failure to accurately account for the mass killings of Armenians, he was vilified by readers and taken to task by Review editor Robert Silvers.

This new book seems, in part, to be atonement. Words beget words.

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Filed under: Books, Genocide, New York Review of Books, Turkey, World, Writing, , , , , ,

Who was Barry Hannah writing for?

Barry Hananh. (Courtesy of Gardenandgun.com)

Barry Hananh. (Courtesy of Gardenandgun.com)

The conventional wisdom is that Barry Hannah, who died this week at the age of 67, is the kind of writer who had two kinds of readers. One: Those who just haven’t read him yet. Two: As the estimable Wells Tower wrote in a profile before Hannah’s death, those who get a “feverish, ecstatic look before they seize you by the lapels and start reeling off cherished passages of his work.”

Sheepishly, I think I fall into a third category. I admire the taut, spring-loaded fury in Hannah’s hearty, American stories. But even as I learned to agree with the idea that he’s among the most important fiction writers of the last decades, I always brushed up against his mechanics, and sensed in his disciplined prose a kind of wrestling match with the words that didn’t work for me. (I gravitate more toward another tortured, muscular southerner: Padgett Powell, who in my opinion wrote the best book of 2009.)

Consider the Towers profile. Read the rest of this entry »

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Reading Stephen King in Riyadh

Cover of "Under the Dome: A Novel"

Cover of Under the Dome: A Novel

I hadn’t read Stephen King since I was 12. Needful Things, which came out in 1991, was the last gasp of what you’d probably call a childhood obsession. Over about 16 months, helped by an aunt who ran a used book store in rural Montana, I devoured them all — The Stand, Misery, even his pseudonymous Bachman Books. I was hooked on the horror and drama, of course. But there was an inkling in the breakneck reading that I was being driven by desires more important than mere titillation.

On reflection — and as inspired by this latest reading — I now realize that my King thing was more than a child’s first crush on scary stories; it was a young man’s effort to figure out how to be an adult. Because — more than macabre tales — King’s novels almost always take some big-hearted stand on what is wrong and what is good and how we should live. (Cujo was about the frailty of man in the face of animals; The Stand about the inherent danger of big cities and the technology that comes with them; Pet Semetary cautioned us not to love animals — or each other — too much.) And a King book is invariably a very long book, a fact that made reading any of them feel like that much more of an accomplishment. Read the rest of this entry »

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If you read only one Salinger tribute

White Mountains National Forest, New Hampshire...

New Hampshire: It's really not at all like the Lower East Side. (Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr)

At least for this week or so, J.D. Salinger is as brilliantly alive to a world of readers as he has been any day for decades. Among the many moving tributes, one by The New Yorker’s Lillian Ross stands above the rest. A friend of Salinger’s for five decades, Ross writes a tribute with feeling and intimacy. Several moments stand out.

He loved children:

After watching his son, Matthew, playing one day, he said, “If your child likes—loves—you, the very love he bears you tears your heart out about once a day or once every other day.” He said, “I started writing and making up characters in the first place because nothing or not much away from the typewriter was reaching my heart at all.”

Salinger was generous with writers he admired:

When he read a story of mine about kids skipping around a Maypole in Central Park, he wrote to me, “The first and last thing you’ve done is to redeem everything, not just make everything bearable.”

He found simple pleasures:

He told me that one day he went out and bought an iron, and had his housekeeper iron his shirts. “How it cheered me up,” he said.

Interesting how a man — whose work is alreadly immortal — gains, in death, a strange flare-up of deeply human presence among a world of many who may have long taken his body for granted. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Books, Death, Entertainment, Journalism, Media, Writing, , , ,

The books I've read

Best novel of the year: The Interrogative Mood

Best novel of the year:

I forget what I’ve read and that feels like letting friends die. Now that I consume words mostly via Kindle, it’s easier to keep track, but still, there is the odd physical object that crosses my eyeballs.

In 2010, the list will be exhaustive. For 2009, I’m remembering as best as I can.

Books are alphabetical by author and feature capsule reviews for each — as much for reader’s edification as for mine. (Memory aid and all that.)

2010

-Chang, Leslie T. – Factory Girls

-D’Agata, John – About a Mountain

de Bellaigue, Christopher – Rebel Lands

-Hessler, Peter – Country Driving (Hand-delivered wisdom from a rapidly changing modern China.)

-King, Stephen – Under the Dome (Addictively shrill novel goes down in one gulp, gives nightmares.)

-Stegner, Wallace – Discovery

-Taylor, Kate, ed. – Going Hungry (Chilling collection of true and enlightening eating disorder tales.)

-Tower, Wells – Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned – (Short stories so engrosing, they should be novels.)

-Twain, Mark – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (What is America, on the page.)

2009

-el-Aswany, Alaa – The Yacoubian Building (Pitch-perfect novel renders the heartbreaking conundrum of modern Egypt.)

-Auster, Paul – Invisible (Not his best, but memorably gross and engrossing.)

-Bolano, Roberto – 2666 (A masterpiece, among the five best novels I’ve ever read.)

-Bowles, Paul – Sheltering Sky (A bitter and disturbing desert classic. Essential reading.)

-Greene, Graham – The Quiet American (The tragic problem of being a westerner in S.E. Asia. I reread this at least once a year.)

-al-Hamad, Turki – Shumaisi (So-so translation of a cloying novel still packs ethnographic punch.)

-King, Michael – The Penguin History of New Zealand (Painful/hopeful, apologetic/ambitious record of world’s strangest nation.)

-Lawrence, Linda – Bold Spirit (Bad book, interesting subject: 1896 woman walks from Wa to NY.)

-Mantel, Hilary – Eight Months on Gazzah Street (In progress… more when I finish.)

-Matthiessen, Peter – Snow Leopard (A zen artifact read accidentally builds to a forceful climax.)

-Meyer, Philipp – American Rust (A lightning read feels amateurish upon reflection.)

-Munif, Abdulrahman – Cities of Salt, The Trench, Variations on Night and Day (Byzantine trilogy of novels is as spiraling as the story of modern Saudi Arabia it tells.)

-O’Neill, Joseph – Netherland (I’m surprising no one when I call this truly post-9-11 Britisher’s tale among the form’s best.)

-Pamuk, Orhan – Museum of Innocence (A mesmerizing saga of love in Istanbul that grows more wise in hindsight.)

-Powell, Padgett – The Interrogative Mood (A dormant PoMo lion returns with the year’s best novel.)

-Rich, Nathaniel – The Mayor’s Tongue (Well-bred wunderkind narrowly makes good of showy silliness.)

-Roberts, Russell – Down the Jersey Shore (Laughably fawning but studded with juicy facts.)

-Seabrook, W.B. – Adventures in Arabia (Almost too-good-to-be-true found novel in which NYC couple abandons W Village coffeehouse to trek Arabia. 1928.)

-Stewart, Rory – Places in Between (Despite annoying faux-modesty, walking book dazzles with rugged intelligence.)

-Theroux, Paul – Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (Lazyish legend licks well-fed lips, content his notes better than your final draft.)

-Whitehead, Colson – Sag Harbor (A comic word magician at top of game tackles race in the ’80s East Hampton.)

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Filed under: Books, Entertainment, Riyadh, Writing, , ,

If you love me, buy Cormac McCarthy's typewriter

Mt Rushmore, 07/27/2005. Released into the pub...

If they made a mountain for American literature, whose faces would need to be carved? (Image via Wikipedia)

I’m not actually saying this to anybody. But you should all know Mr. McCarthy’s typewriter — the one he’s used for fifty years, on which he wrote all of his books and letters over that period, a total he estimates at some five million words — is for sale.

In the sharp idiom of a rare book dealer:

When I grasped that some of the most complex, almost otherworldly fiction of the postwar era was composed on such a simple, functional, frail-looking machine, it conferred a sort of talismanic quality to Cormac’s typewriter. It’s as if Mount Rushmore was carved with a Swiss Army knife.

via No Country for Old Typewriters – A Well-Used One Heads to Auction – NYTimes.com.

I’m not usually one to covet objects — we move too much — but this would be something worth lugging around.

Filed under: Books, Writing, , , ,

Padgett Powell maybe wrote the best book of 2009

interrogative mood

The Interrogative Mood is Padgett Powell's stunning new novel.

I’m not finished yet — just over 25 percent complete, according to my Kindle — but I’m quite confident Padgett Powell’s new novel is the best book of the year. Written entirely in the form of questions, The Interrogative Mood seems to be the perfect delivery method for Padgett’s stylistic precision, moral power, absurdist muscularity, and barreling ennui. Whereas previous books of his had sparkled with a kind of mathematical intelligence when it came to structure and pacing, there had always been for me the sense that the great tiger of an author lurked between the paragraphs, his great paws ready to do the real harm of storytelling previously confined or at least somewhat limited by the boundaries of a typical novel.

That’s over! Padgett is unleashed! I’ll reserve further judgment until I finish, but I wanted to share this absolute gem:

If you had enough money to live on, could you see retiring to a small village in France and never being heard of or from again, and not speaking French when there, mostly because you can’t but also because you have nothing to say and you’d have no one to say it to if you had something to say, and mostly just sleeping in your quaint medieval stone cottage? Could you make do with a little exercise once in a while and a piece of Beaufort of very high quality? And maybe a look-in on the pigs? What if the cartoonist R. Crumb were your neighbor? Would you sleep better, or worse, or the same knowing R. Crumb was your neighbor in the next quaint stone medieval cottage in the South of France. Would life go on, or would you have to move to another village, or would you have to abandon the idea of retiring to France altogether realizing R. Crumb had done it and he was the tip of an iceberg going back through hundreds of persecuted sensitive American martyrs, from the Josephine Bakers and James Baldwins and Paul Robesons to the precious Fitzgeralds all the way up to the profane California cartoonists — wouldn’t you just be so yanked out of the frame that you’d feel it would be better to move not to gentle France but to, say, Burma where like Jeffrey Dahmer in prison you could be killed almost instantly when you set foot there? Wouldn’t it be better to have a Muslim in Burma put a cobra in your suitcase on day two than go through the long pleasant sunset desuetude of retiring silently in France? Would it, in fact, not be better were you to assassinate ten or so pleasant silent American retirees on your way out of sunny France en route to your rude and immediate fatal neurologic toxic death in Burma? Would there not be cause for wild cheer among a certain kind of depression-suffering person who reads the headline “Suspected Slayer of Cartoonist R. Crumb Victim of Cobra in Burma”? Would it be the worst thing said of you that your last act was expended on behalf of the depressed? Do you want something said of you, or nothing said of you, when you go?

There’s more.

Earlier: Padgett Powell has a desire to break your heart; or, there are a few times in your life when you meet someone truly great. Even better when that greatness makes you want it, not fear it.

Filed under: Books, Entertainment, Florida, Writing, , , , ,

Padgett Powell has a desire to break your heart

powell

Padgett Powell wants you to beware of warm potatoes. (Courtesy University of Florida)

There are a few times in your life when you meet someone truly great. Even better when that greatness makes you want it, not fear it.

Fiction, Powell once wrote, is taking strange truths and making them into less-strange lies. Here the relative levels of strangeness might be debatable. But in Powell’s world strange truths do seem to manifest themselves regularly. When I arrived to visit him this summer at his house in the woods, he was engaged in a furious war against the local raccoons, which had murdered 17 of his 18 chickens. Powell, who is 57, thick-chested and muscular, had come home from a trip to Morocco to find the neighbor he left in charge — a shoeless machinist Powell paid to build the coops and safeguard the birds — gone AWOL, having taken Powell’s truck, leaving only a note, written on the back of a receipt for $70 of cheap liquor, asking for some money from Powell’s teenage daughter. All that was left for Powell to do was to revenge himself on the raccoons. So now he was trapping them nightly. But unable to shoot an animal trapped in a cage, he had failed to execute the first two he caught, and when I showed up he was girding himself to shoot his latest capture, a shifty-looking, smallish specimen, and be done with it, but he was dithering a bit and growing annoyed with himself that he had enough N.R.A. in him to feel he should have no sympathy for the thing but then also enough NPR in him to hesitate.

Well now there’s enough New York Times in him for the magazine to send a writer down to Gainesville to do a profile. It couldn’t have happened to a better guy:

ON THE DAY he was steeling himself to kill the third raccoon, I came to meet Powell at his house, a two-story Victorian that sits about half a mile down a dirt driveway. We were headed an hour northeast to the St. Johns River, where we intended to do some mullet fishing. The house sits on 10 acres of woodland he bought in 1992 with his wife, the poet Sidney Wade (they divorced in 2005), just to the south and east of Gainesville’s city limits, where the population is predominantly African-American and mostly poor. When I told him where I was staying — on the west side of town — he wrote to me, explaining how to find him: “I am far east (black side). You are in the proper zone.”

Maybe I’ve never felt like I belong in the proper zone either, but at the same time I guess sometime in my early 20s I realized I wasn’t great. Powell most certainly is — maybe too great. His feel for the human voice might be a knowledge akin to a calculator’s of arithmetic.

What Powell does with language and sound, with timing, rhythm and cadence, is a thing of strange precision. Here is the simple opening of the title story of his third book, from 1991, a collection called “Typical,” in which the narrator, John Payne, a laid-off steelworker, looks at his life and concludes he is an unpleasant person of little worth:

Yesterday a few things happened. Every day a few do. My dog beat up another dog. He does this when he can. It’s his living, more or less, though I’ve never let him make money doing it. He could. Beating up other dogs is his thing. He means no harm by it, expects other dogs to beat him up — no anxiety about it. If anything makes him nervous, it’s that he won’t get a chance to beat up or be beaten up. He’s healthy. I don’t think I am.

This is what happened when he debuted, in 1984:

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS ago things looked very different. The publication of Powell’s first novel, “Edisto,” in 1984, occasioned a reception almost like a coronation. The comic chronicle of Simons Everson Manigault — a linguistically precocious 12-year-old assigned by his mother to gather material in preparation for literary greatness — “Edisto” was a finalist for the National Book Award. It was also one of Time magazine’s five best fiction books of the year and exuberantly reviewed across the country. Walker Percy said it reminded him of “The Catcher in the Rye” — except, he said, “it’s better.” The book was excerpted in The New Yorker, won Powell a Whiting Award and a Rome Prize and got him a job teaching fiction writing at the University of Florida, and to this day it often appears on various critics’ best-of lists.

So what it’s like to be 25 years past a comparison to Salinger? From 2002 to 2006, I spent five summers in St. Petersburg, Russia, sharing that phantasmagoria with Powell. Seeing him pound through the city, glasses affixed to sturdy nose, fishing shirt stuffed with literature and pills, lips pouting, jaw clenched, I saw what greatness looks like on vacation. It’s a wonderful sight.

Bonus: Sizing up one of my overcooked paragraphs in 2002, Powell regarded me sourly and said this: “Mr. Deuel, there are warm potatoes sitting in your sentences doing warm harm.” I’ve never written the same.

Thank you, Mr. Powell.

via Padgett Powell’s Southern Discomfort – NYTimes.com.

Filed under: Books, Entertainment, Florida, New York Times, Writing, , , , ,