Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Shout That Killed


On this day, five years ago, more than 950 people died in a single incident in Baghdad.  What became known as the al-A'Imma Bridge Stampede began with a single person shouting a warning about a suicide bomber, rapidly grew into mass hysteria and the crush of bodies on a bottle-necked bridge, and ended with national grief and sectarian fingerpointing.

In the U.S. these days, few people talk about the tragedy at the bridge--if they even remember it at all (the one exception is Brian Turner's excellent poem, quoted at the end of this post).  To be fair, the al-A'Imma Bridge Stampede came two days after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, and so it got lost in all the media noise from that equally-tragic event.

In general, however, like so many things that have happened in Iraq since 2003, America has a type of collective Alzheimer's Disease regarding what happens in a country half a globe away: awareness and clarity come and go, but mostly it's pretty foggy.  News junkies, Pentagon bean counters, and families of deployed soldiers are, for the most part, dialed in to what's going on; but for the majority of Americans, the Iraq War has dulled to bumper stickers and repetitious headlines.  A fuzzy, gray half-awareness sets in.  When 950 men, women and children die in a single day, however, it should matter.  It should matter a lot.

I was there in Baghdad that day, working in the public affairs section at the Army's multi-national task force headquarters a few miles away from the al-A'Imma Bridge.  From where I sat in my cubicle, this turned out to be one of the saddest days I spent that year in Iraq.

Here is what I wrote in my journal at the end of that day:

Aug. 31, 2005:  The thuds striking the earth were hardly noticeable to us in the Division Headquarters.   They could barely be heard over the constant murmur of voices punctuated by occasional exclamations of laughter, the stream of official radio chatter from the Operations Center speakers overhead, the hissing drone of the air conditioning, the very thoughts inside our heads which steadily cried out, “Home! Home! Home!”

No, the thuds were only distant thumps, as if a giant was walking over the crest of the horizon with hard, measured footsteps.  We paid them no mind, like all the other daily thumps and thuds and thunder-cracks of bombs.

But less than 20 minutes later, we found ourselves snapping to attention because suddenly those distant explosions were front and center in our operations: terrorists had fired mortars and rockets into a crowd of thousands congregated at a mosque in Khadamiyah in honor of an ancient imam’s birth (or perhaps it was his death—either way, it was a religious celebration of his coming or going).  At least eight indirect fires were launched at the unsuspecting pilgrims from two different sectors of the city, one landing on the mosque, the others falling outside and along the miles-long river of chanting Shi’as.  The first reports streaming in estimated the civilian casualties in the hundreds; a few hours later, that would be downgraded to seven dead and a few dozen injured.

Some of our helicopters in the area saw the rockets launched; the pilots locked on target and effectively wiped out the terrorists, blasting them straight up to whatever Allah they had been praising.  Ground troops descended on the area, rounded up more than 50 people and gathered evidence, including a metal tube which had probably been used to launch the rockets.

Back in Cubicle Headquarters, our first instinct was to not issue a press release.   Instead, we would step back and allow the Ministry of Interior to handle the media—which they did in due time and with due competence with no help from us.

In the meantime, Col. G---- had swooped down on our cubicle, insisting we get something out there right away.  I sat down and started drafting a press release, patching together what little I knew.  My boss, Lt. Col. W---- had disappeared into an hours-long meeting and I was left with Col. G---- hovering over my shoulder, jingling the loose change in his pocket and helping wordsmith the sentences so that we put out accurate information, but yet remained generic and hazy enough to allow for wiggle room according to future developments.  Col. G---- said we needed to include casualty figures, but I held fast to our policy of not getting into the “numbers game” and he acquiesced.  Within thirty minutes, we had patted and molded and shaped a press release to our mutual liking and he pointed his finger at my computer screen and barked like a city editor, “Send it!”

Really, though, our little massaged, 150-word press release was a mere afterthought in the grand scheme of things because by that time MOI had their hands on the controls and the wire services had already filed their own stories with no help from us.

We went on about our daily business.  I read e-mails, I saved photos to the archive, I strayed long enough in the bathroom to read a couple of articles in The New Yorker.  We went to lunch and ate our carrot sticks and parmesan chicken breast and blueberry cheesecake, we came back to our desks and fell into the torpid slumber of post-lunch lethargy, we played computer solitaire and circulated e-mail jokes.

Then the Bad quickly morphed into Worse.

Back at the mosque, in the already-edgy crowd, someone yelled, “He’s got a bomb!  Watch out!  He’s going to blow himself up!” or Arabic words to the effect of “Fire!  Fire!  Fire!” in the proverbial crowded theater.  The beast with four thousand feet grew restless.  It started churning.  A wave of panic rippled outward from the ground zero of whoever had sounded the alarm (which, in all likelihood was a false alarm planted by a terrorist).  The four thousand feet pivoted on their heels and stampeded outward like a spreading stain.  The huge mob of pilgrims started pushing and screaming, shoving and running, tripping and churning, the fallen trying to rise but kicked down by more and more feet gaining acceleration from the feared blast zone, those at the edge now turning in the face of the surging human tide and walking rapidly at first, then--as they felt the hot breath on their necks--starting to run.   The weak and less-coordinated tripped and fell, lying flat on the pavement, only to be stomped by all those feet, the four thousand sandals now running, running, running with blind panic.

Later that day, we read in The New York Times: "The Iraqi authorities had blocked off roads to car traffic throughout northern Baghdad starting Tuesday evening, anticipating attacks on the hundreds of thousands of Shiites who were converging on the capital.  The bridge where the stampede took place marks an especially fragile fault line, linking Kadhimiya with Adhamiya, a Sunni area that has long been a stronghold of support for Saddam Hussein and the insurgency."

Dust clogged the air, swirled by screams and flailing limbs.  The mob funneled onto the bridge, all of them squeezing their way toward the other end, only to find their way blocked by an impenetrable Iraqi Police checkpoint.  People were crushed, the breath pushed from their lungs, their ribs cracked, their organs compressed, legs and arms and necks of young children snapped like thin, dry twigs.

Then, somewhere along the bridge, the pressure of human bodies grew too great and the railings broke and burst open, spilling body after body into the murky-brown Tigris River forty feet below.  Women covered in black from head to toe toppled over the edge and smacked the water, their heavy abayas dragging them under with the sound of smacking lips.  The current sucked and licked up the young children falling like little drops of flesh from the bridge overhead.  And still the bodies pressed outward from the imaginary bomber, the pressure of the crowd at last finding an opening, a relief valve.  Hundreds of bodies were jettisoned out of the break in the railing to the dirty, roiled water below.

Back in our cool cubicles, all laughter came to an end as the Ops Center speakers started delivering the grim news.  We turned to the TV for the most up-to-date (but not, as it turned out, most accurate) information since the roads around the mosque had been closed, sealed off by the police who wanted to contain the death around the bridge.  Western media was shut out from the area.  A Washington Post reporter called, begging to hitch a ride with any of our patrols going to the site.  I said, we can’t even get to the bridge at this point.

CNN started reporting figures of 600 dead; minutes later, it was climbing to 650 dead.  Apparently, they’d heard from someone at the scene who said they heard someone had heard on Al-Jazeera that Iraqi Police were handing out those figures.  There were reports that 50 people eating at the mosque had been sickened and killed by rat poison.

We drifted over and watched Al-Huriya television broadcasts.  One of the Iraqi generals came on and said not to believe any of the numbers which are being reported.  However, no matter what anyone said, it was plain to see there were lots and lots of dead.  No one knew if there ever really was a suicide bomber.  At this point, it didn’t matter.  More people had died in half an hour than in all of last month.  It was the shout that killed, the words that devastated more than any shrapnel or flames could ever do.

A Kate Bush song started playing in my head:
But they told us
All they wanted
Was a sound that could kill someone
From a distance.

We struggled to make sense of it.  We tried to separate truth from fiction, rumor from confirmed reports.  We sent teams of military police to the area hospitals and the mosque to count bodies and report back as soon as possible.

BBC Radio called and asked if they could interview me about the events of the day and I said I could only talk about our limited involvement with the rocket attacks.  They said that’s okay, that’s all they needed from us, but of course once I was live on air they snuck in several pushy questions about the bridge stampede and I could do nothing but stutter about how the Iraqi Security Forces had everything under control, that they were the ones in charge at the scene.  I had no fucking clue if that was true or not, but it was one of our official “messages” we needed to push when speaking to the media and I recited it like a good little boy.

After I hung up, I walked over to the bank of television sets near our cubicle.  Al-Arabia TV was showing footage from the scene.  Bodies weree stacked like cordwood along the pavement.  Some of them were covered with sheets, some were covered with tarps of gold foil (perhaps some building scraps dug out of the trash nearby).  When they ran out of materials to use, they just pulled shirts up over faces.  Still, as the camera panned along the sidewalk morgue, the breeze lifted the corners of the blankets and the gold foil and the dead looked at us through the camera—the open mouths with their teeth dirtied by river water, the rolled-back eyes, the knitted brows, the look of confusion.  A young boy in a T-shirt, flies walking across his eyeballs, reached out his arms for his mother, her face up on the bridge rapidly receding.  The buckled limbs, the splayed feet, the hundreds and hundreds of shapeless mounds beneath the sheets.  It was almost too much for us to bear.  Beside me, the Iraqi female interpreter who works for Information Operations, kept gasping and clucking her tongue.  She couldn’t even find the words—she could only helplessly cluck her tongue.

We watched the still-living walk among the newly-dead, lifting the corners of blankets, taking a fast peek, then moving on to the next body.  Every so often, a woman in black would collapse and begin wailing, rocking back and forth over the news she didn’t want confirmed—the “Yes, it’s me” face of her sister, her mother, her husband, her child.  One woman fainted completely away and several men rushed up to splash water on her face.  Curiously, the water was carried in plastic bags, like they’d just come from a pet store with a few goldfish.  They splashed the cold, clear water on the woman and picked her up by the still-limp arms and pulled her to the shade.  One of the men yelled and waved to an ambulance crew.  Two stretchers came—one for the woman, one for the dead body she’d just identified.  They were both carried away, the stretcher-bearers picking their way carefully through the miles of bodies which had been fished out of the Tigris and dumped along the road.

In time, the crowds evaporated, leaving the bridge to bear its sorrow alone--the span of pavement littered with trash, handbags, and the empty sandals of the dead.



*     *     *     *     *

In one of the most potent poems of his just-released collection Phantom Noise, Brian Turner describes the scene in "Al-A'Imma Bridge."  Here are the opening stanzas:

They fall from the bridge into the Tigris--
they fall from railings or tumble down, shoved by panic,
by those in the crushing weight behind them,
mothers with children, seventy-year-old men
clawing at the blue and empty sky, which is too beautiful;
some focus on the bridgework as they fall, grasp
the invisible rope which slips through their fingers,
some palm-heel the air beneath them, pressing down
as their children swim in the oxygen beside them;
lives blurring with no time to make sense, some
so close to shore they smash against the rocks;
the pregnant woman who twists
in a corkscrew of air, flipping upside down,
the world upended, her black dress
a funeral banner rippling in the wind,
her child never given a name;

Click here to read the rest of the poem.

(Photos: Top, Ahmad Al-rubaye--AFP; Bottom, Akram Saleh/Getty Images)

Monday, August 30, 2010

"The Corrections": Still Dysfunctional After All These Years

It's August 30, 2010, and that could only mean it's (unofficially, temporarily) Franzen Eve.

Here in the Abrams household, we're all a-tingle for the release of Jonathan Franzen's already-acclaimed new novel Freedom.  At least, I'm all tingly; my wife is yawning, my daughter is Facebooking, and my cat is scratching in the litter box, discreetly covering a fresh pile.  But what do they know?  At least someone here cares about the Novel of the Year.

At precisely 12:01 a.m., Freedom will be beamed by the Amazon pixies onto my Kindle.  Question: Mockingjay, Harry Potter, and Twilight novels all get midnight release parties, but what about poor J.F.?  Are there any Franzen Freedom Frenzies planned at a local bookstore near you?  I suspect not, but you never know, there might be a few dedicated readers who just can't wait to start reading about troubled Midwestern families and will venture out into the dark of night to get their hands on Freeeeeedommmmm!  (Random Mel Gibson moment)

As I wait for the book to trickle onto my Kindle, my thoughts turn back nine years to the day when I finished reading Franzen's last Great Big Book, The Corrections.  I was so blown away by the novel, so reduced to a puddle of reader's joy and writer's envy, I believe a spoon and a mop were involved in the cleanup.

I wrote a review--not a great one, but not a bad one, either--and I'm posting it below in its original entirety.  I was a bit unrestrained in my praise and was still pretty giddy over the cultural impact of the Oprah Book Club, but I think the enthusiasm was pretty justified.  I should also note that the review was written and published online before the Oprah Show kerfuffle.  For those who need a quick primer on the drama which dominated our every waking hour for weeks on end (oh, how it seemed so important at the time!), here's the lowdown:

1)  The Oprah Winfrey Show selected The Corrections for its next book club pick, a distinction which included an invitation to appear on the show and to have the large, unavoidable O printed on the book cover.
2)  Franzen didn't say no to the invitation, but while out on tour promoting the novel, he made comments which didn't sit well with the show's producers.  To wit:  "(Oprah's) picked some good books, but she's picked enough schmaltzy, one dimensional ones that I cringe, myself, even though I think she's really smart and she's really fighting the good fight."
3)  He was promptly disinvited.  Oprah announced on television: "Jonathan Franzen will not be on the Oprah Winfrey show because he is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as a book club selection."
4)  Franzen started tap-dancing with apologies and explanations.
5)  Oprah said, "Sorry, Charlie.  A disinvitation's a disinvitation.  Besides, I've been hearing about a book written by a guy named James Frey and I'm thinking that might make a good pick for my club."  (Or words to that effect.)

Here are a couple of contemporary views of the whole brouhaha:  Moby Lives and Boston Review.

And now, on to my Pre-Oprah review....

*     *     *     *     *

Let’s start with the fresh legend of The Corrections: author Jonathan Franzen wrote part of the Bible-sized novel while sitting in a room with soundproof walls and double-paned windows.  Each day he arrived at the writing room, he would draw the blinds, turn off all the lights, insert earplugs, then don a pair of superfluous earmuffs.  Finally, in a theatrical gesture to end all theatrical gestures, he’d wrap a blindfold around his eyes.  Whether or not this is apocryphal (hey, he told it to the New York Times so it must be true!), it’s still fun for us readers to sit here on the other end of the writing process with that image in mind: a blind and deaf Franzen hunched over a keyboard, alone with all those raging, competing voices in his head.

Whatever the method or madness, it seems to have worked for the 42-year-old novelist.  Not only has he taken the postmodern fiction beast by the ears and given it a rough shake, but—glory of glories!—he’s managed to get himself anointed by Oprah.

I was midway through my reading of The Corrections when it was chosen for the TV queen’s book club and I must say I was stunned.  Stunned, I tell you!  Not just because she has once again surprised me with her range in taste but because she has dared to devote an entire hour of bookchat with a novelist who—brace yourselves—cunningly features a walking, talking turd in the course of the book’s action.

Granted, the animated feces is part of poor old Alfred Lambert’s Parkinson’s disease hallucinations, but I simply cannot imagine how Ms. Winfrey plans to address it on her show.  My guess is, she’ll skip right over the poop and go straight to the heart of the novel’s dysfunction, that freezer-burned Thanksgiving turkey which sits at the centerpiece of The Corrections.  The breakdown of the nuclear family—that’s the real “poop” of the book.  Franzen puts Ward and June Cleaver (and Jim and Margaret Anderson—Robert Young with his cardigans and Jane Wyatt with her kitchen aprons) squarely under the lens of his microscope.  Father doesn’t know best here.  In fact, father hardly knows anything at all anymore.  The Lamberts of fictional St. Jude, a Midwestern suburb, have been coming apart at the seams for years.  Franzen just happens to catch them at their most unraveled.

Let’s take a quick roll call at that Thanksgiving dinner table (a scene, by the way, which makes its only appearance on the book’s dust jacket):

Seated to my right your left is Chip Lambert, the middle child of three.  A “tall, gym-built man with crow’s-feet and sparse butter-yellow hair,” Chip has just been fired from his teaching position at D—— College for “sexual harassment” (though it’s clear the sex with his student was consensual).  Despondent, he’s written a 124-page movie script called The Academy Purple, a thinly-veiled farce about the Clinton scandal (characters: Bill, Hillaire and Mona).  Unfortunately, his girlfriend who has much-needed connections in the independent film world is leaving him because the script has “too many breast references and a draggy opening.”  Now even more despondent, Chip hires on to set up a website for a shady Lithuanian politician.  Much hilarity and heartbreak ensue.

To Chip’s right is his older brother Gary, vice president of a Philadelphia bank and put-upon husband of a wife who actively despises her in-laws due to an Unspeakable Christmas Incident.  Badgered, depressed, paranoid, alcoholic and guilt-ridden—Gary’s just your typical white-collar male trying to hold his own in the post-sensitive-guy era.  Of all the characters, he’s the least appealing due in part to his bland demeanor.  I found myself reading through his section (each character gets a chance to hog the narrative spotlight) quickly, ruffling pages in hopes I’d read more about Chip or the others.  Gary is just too Rotary Club, too soccer dad, too whiny white-male “victim” for my tastes.

Let’s move on to sister Denise, sitting across the turkey-laden table from Gary.  Denise is a chef at a trendy Philadelphia restaurant built inside the skeletal remains of a coal power plant (so haute cuisine!).  She’s having an affair with both the boss and the boss’ wife, secrets she tries to conceal from the rest of the family.  She needn’t worry they’ll find out—they’re all too busy trying to sort out their own tangled skeins.  Denise gets the majority of our sympathies, mainly because she seems to be the most centered, grounded person in the whole clan.  She’s fragile and ultra-careful with her feelings (“she’d made a program of steeling herself against the emotions of this house, against the saturation of childhood memory and significance”), but who wouldn’t be, having grown up with this much repression and depression?

Next to Denise is Enid, the matriarch.  Enid is a worrier.  She worries about her husband’s rapidly-declining health.  She worries about managing the family’s finances.  She worries that Chip will never find the right girl and Denise will never find the right boy.  But most of all, she worries that the family will not reunite for one last Christmas before Alfred’s mind goes poof!  To calm her frantic mind, a doctor aboard a pleasure cruise prescribes a drug called Aslan (yes, it’s a direct nod to Narnia’s lion), so potent that the FDA will probably never approve it.  Nonetheless, Enid is hooked on pharmaceutical happiness and so, for a short while, she doesn’t have to fret about cleaning up her husband when he soils his pants.

Squeezed next to Enid is Alfred, the turd-fearing head of the household.  You’ll notice, perhaps, that I placed no one at the head of this imaginary Thanksgiving table.  That’s because there is no head of the family anymore.  At one point, Alfred sat there, carving knife in hand; but now he is a shadow of his former self (Franzen writes, he was once “an individual from an age of individuals”).  He’s become a mental ramble of a man who has set up his own little kingdom in the basement, outfitted with a Ping-Pong table, a blue leather chair, a portable color TV, a urine-filled Yuban coffee can, hundreds of dust-colored crickets and, ominously, a shotgun.  A retired railroad executive who once ruled the household with a stern hand, Alfred is now a very sick man.  The descriptions of his mental disintegration are especially detailed and poignant and color the whole novel with a sticky grimness.  Not since William Wharton’s Dad has senility been treated with equal parts realism and flights of literary fancy.

And, yes, the words do take wing—right from the get-go.  The near-musical constructs of language are the novel’s highlights.  Here’s Franzen’s irresistible first paragraph:
The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through.  You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen.  The sun low in the sky; a minor light, a cooling star.  Gust after gust of disorder.  Trees restless, temperatures falling, the whole northern religion of things coming to an end.  No children in the yards here.  Shadows lengthened on yellowing zoysia.  Red oaks and pin oaks and swamp white oaks rained acorns on houses with no mortgage.  Storm windows shuddered in the empty bedrooms.  And the drone and hiccup of a clothes dryer, the nasal contention of a leaf blower, the ripening of local apples in a paper bag, the smell of the gasoline with which Albert Lambert had cleaned the paintbrush from his morning painting of the wicker love seat.
These, ladies and gentlemen, are words to savor.  Roll them around on your tongue like a sweet hard candy.  Don’t chew, just let them dissolve in your saliva.

Each sentence can be broken down into compartments, your mind lingering over each noun, each adjective.  The shuddering storm windows, the hiccupping dryer, the nasal leaf blower.  This is fiction at its finest hour in 2001.

There’s more good stuff elsewhere:
Alfred’s red sweater hung on him in skewed folds and bulges, as if he were a log or a chair.  His gray wool slacks were afflicted with stains that he had no choice but to tolerate, because the only other option was to take leave of his senses, and he wasn’t quite ready to do that.
and
It was the morning of Thanksgiving.  The flurries had stopped and the sun was halfway out.  A gull’s wings rattled and clacked.  The breeze had a ruffly quality, it didn’t quite seem to touch the ground.  Chip sat on a freezing guardrail and smoked and took comfort in the sturdy mediocrity of American commerce, the unpretending metal and plastic roadside hardware.  The thunk of a gas-pump nozzle halting when a tank was filled, the humility and promptness of its service. And a 99-cent Big Gulp banner swelling with wind and sailing nowhere, its nylon ropes whipping and pinging on a galvanized standard.
It’s not hard to see the skeletons of David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo showing through the flesh covering Franzen’s story.  In addition to sharing The Corrections’ doorstop heft, the books of Wallace and DeLillo share—and ultimately exceed—the intellectual heft found here.  There are no lengthy footnotes (Wallace) or spiraling streams of consciousness (DeLillo), and Franzen’s ambition is sometimes too obvious in its overreach.

Where books like Infinite Jest and White Noise brim with Big Thought—

—if you’ve ever been to a fish hatchery and walked along an outdoor pool teeming with trout, you’ll know what I mean when I say that one page of Infinite Jest can have the same effect on your brain as dropping a breadcrumb into a fin-to-fin pool of cutthroats: the water churns, and so does your brain—

The Corrections eases us carefully into its intelligence.  Oh it’s still there, to some degree, but it’s like the soft center of DeLillo-ism, the chewy caramel of Wallace-istic frenzy.  Franzen is most concerned with spinning a good yarn.  And it is a satisfying story…albeit one which grows exhausting by page 450.  A little dysfunction goes a long way, as we learned in the similarly Oprahfied Joyce Carol Oates novel We Were the Mulvaneys.

So, what Franzen’s got that many other writers of “serious” literature tend to lack is accessibility.  The Corrections is relatively easy on the eyes and the brain (though hard on the soul).  I mean, can you honestly imagine thousands of TV viewers tuning in to watch an hour devoted to John Barth, Robert Coover or even DeLillo?  Fat chance.  Sure, the imprimatur of Miz Winfrey adds “legitimacy” to The Corrections, but even without that seal of “approval,” Franzen’s Great American Novel is softer and fuzzier. It’s a big novel for Everyfamily.  No matter who your parents were, no matter what household you grew up in, you will undoubtedly see a piece of your own heritage on these pages.  This is an Instant Family—like a powder mix...just add water!—and the Lamberts should be recognizable to nearly anyone born between the twin shadows of Hiroshima and Nixon’s SALT.  On Franzen’s pages, the nuclear family is ready to explode at any moment, leveling houses, trees and psyches in a milli-blink.  These are our fathers, our mothers, our brothers and sisters…perhaps, in some cases, ourselves.  Franzen holds up the mirror and dares us to look away.

And yet, the Lamberts are very much “characters,” creative squiggles of ink on the page.  Like DeLillo and Wallace before him, Franzen elevates his creation to Voltairian levels.  The humor is broad, loud and incredibly painful at times.  As Oprah would say, “He’s got issues.”

And that’s why the image of a blindfolded, ear-stoppered Franzen tapping feverishly in the dark is so appealing.  It’s tempting to imagine that he was wrestling with his own domestic-dysfunction demons, transcribing those busy-tongued voices in his head…and yet, somehow getting it right for the rest of us in the process.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Soup and Salad: Breece D'J Pancake, The Gertrude Stein Stein, Rejection City, Incarceration Fantasies, Rosecrans Baldwin, JCO, Will Ferrell does Raymond Carver

On today's menu:

1.  Breece D'J Pancake lures me and I find I cannot resist his pull.  After enjoying some success with his short stories (published primarily in The Atlantic), Pancake died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at age 26 in 1979; The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake was published in 1983.  It's a book that's long been on my list of Want-to-Reads, but I've put it off for the usual groundless reasons.  But then, this week Pancake blipped onto my radar twice.  First, one of my Facebook friends included Pancake in a photo album of favorite authors.  Then, I saw this post over at The Emerging Writers Network where Dan Wickett, EWN proprietor, talks to Giancarlo DiTrapano, editor of New York Tyrant, about publishing Pancake's work in the latest issue of the magazine.  DiTrapano says:
You know the whole philosophy/theory/idea about a great short story being a piece that nothing can be added to and that nothing can be taken out of it without the piece suffering?  Like say it's treated as an animal, and say a certain sentence is the liver.  If you take out the liver, the animal will die.  If you take out a certain sentence, say the liver-sentence, the story itself will die.  Anyway, that theory goes something like that.  I don't even remember where I got that from or if I made it up myself, but I used to think it was total bullshit until I read "Trilobites" [the first story in the Pancake collection]. That story, in my opinion, is the closest you can get to a living breathing thing on the page.  Absolutely everything matters in there.  Everything is tied to something else.  It's like a maypole, or a tapestry, but with live veins for the ribbons or the thread.
Okay, fine.  I get the hint.  I'll start reading Pancake today.  It's Sunday--what else am I going to do with myself?

2.  The LA Times' Jacket Copy blog scours the back rooms of eBay so I don't have to.  Here's a list of their 12 favorite non-book literary oddities on the auction website, along with some appropriate snarky commentary.  The Sherlock Holmes finger puppet, the Gertrude Stein stein, and the American Psycho belt buckle are all pretty cool, but I'm particularly fond of what Jacket Copy has to say about the Albert Camus earrings:  the perfect accessory for the day you're thinking, "Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?"

3.  At the Alaska-based 49 Writers blog, Andromeda Romano-Lax (The Spanish Bow) faces rejection, and comes out swinging on the other side.  She offers up good advice, including this:
The harder the publishing world gets, the more writers will drop out because they just can't endure, mentally and financially.  Persistence is the key.  Learning how to persist, how to endure, how to keep risking and growing is essential.  And yet so hard.  But the good news is: if you're particularly stubborn, your chances are better than other people's chances.  And it's easier to cultivate stubbornness than genius.

4.  At The Millions, Doug Bruns ponders the positive effects of imprisonment.  While I'm not thinking about going all Thoreau with my life, I've often fantasized about all the reading and writing I'd get done during seclusion.  I like how Bruns puts it:
Prison cells.  Towers in Bordeaux.  Cabins in the woods, and tents on the sides of mountains.  At work behind the scene is the argument that life can be forced into an edifying and redeeming corner.  It is a persuasive, if not compelling notion: That when everything is lost or set aside or taken from you, only then do you have the opportunity to do what it is you truly wish to do, to review your list of what is worthy and what is wasteful.

5.  While you're at The Millions, click over to the journal Rosecrans Baldwin kept while waiting for the publication of his debut novel You Lost Me There.  "Writing is My Peppermint-Flavored Heroin" is funny stuff and makes me want to read You Lost Me There all the more.
You Lost Me There took me four years to write.  Before it, I wrote two other novels, one that was junk and another that received many polite rejection notices from big publishers.  What happens if this book is judged to be corrosive to the Earth?  What if little girls cry when they read it?
 
6.  Joyce Carol Oates reads at the same prolific pace as she writes.  Surely, she must be a clone.
 
 
 
7.  I have high hopes and low expectations for the upcoming movie Everything Must Go starring Will Ferrell in a downbeat role.  Everything Must Go is based on one of my favorite Raymond Carver short stories, "Why Don't You Dance?" and that makes me twitchy.  On the one hand, I really enjoyed Ferrell in his other playing-against-type movie Stranger Than Fiction.  On the other hand, I wasn't all that impressed with Robert Altman's Short Cuts which turned out to be a mashed-potatoes version of Carver's fiction.  It wasn't bad, but it didn't have the contained power of Carver's individual stories.  I'm still waiting for the movie version of "Popular Mechanics."

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Jonathan Franzen, Our Literary Messiah


Is Jonathan Franzen a Great American Novelist, or the Great American Novelist?

On this week's cover, TIME magazine carefully drops the article in front of "Great," leaving the rest of us to add things like "Super-" or "Not-So-" or "Who Cares?" in the boldly trumpeted headline.  (For what it's worth, I think Franzen falls somewhere between "a" and "the.")

On the eve of publication of Franzen's newest work of fiction, Freedom, people other than the editors at TIME have also been blaring trumpets.  By now, we have a veritable brass section which promises readers that this (along with the Kindle 3) is the salvation of our contemporary literature.  For the nervous, huddled masses of readers who flinch at every dip in B&N stock and gnash their teeth in Twitter debates over literary v. commercial fiction, Franzen alternately wears a halo or horns on that TIME cover.  He's our modern James Joyce, or he's an overblown elitist.  You loved The Corrections or you hated it; the middle ground is virtually unpopulated.  For the other 4 billion people out there--the ones who are saying "Jonathan who?" in the supermarket checkout lines this week--life goes on with nary a ripple.  To many of them, novelists (great or otherwise) fall pretty low on the scale of entertainers.  Reading fiction was something they did back in high school or maybe college, or maybe that one Christmas when their well-meaning uncle gave them a copy of The Bridges of Madison County.  These days?  Not so much.  As Lev Grossman notes in his TIME cover story, Franzen is a member of a "perennially threatened species, the American literary novelist."

Endangered or not, the publicity-shy author is now the Soup du Jour.  This week, writers, and readers, and people who write about writers and readers have latched bulldog teeth onto everything and anything related to Franzen and Freedom.  The 576-novel about Patty and Walter Berglund's dysfunctional Midwestern family doesn't arrive in bookstores until next Tuesday, but that hasn't stopped the teapots from getting tossed into a tempest.

I'm probably a non-committal Franzen fan.  I absolutely loved The Corrections, but I haven't read anything else by the guy--not The Twenty-Seventh City, nor The Discomfort Zone, nor even How to Be Alone.  My Corrections fever seemed to be a one-off delerium.

That is, until Freedom came along with its rolling snowball of hype and hysteria.

Now, I'm ready to forsake family, work, and America's Got Talent semi-finals just so I can read Freedom.  I have it pre-ordered to drop onto my Kindle and I am doing all I can to clear my reading calendar before next week, but my enthusiasm is starting to waver with every calliope note from the carnival which blew into town this week.

Generally, I try to avoid reviews of books before I've had a chance to read them for myself.  But how can I resist, when The Guardian is proclaiming Freedom "the novel of the century"?  Really?  That may very well be, but let's not sell short the next 90 years of novels, okay?

All of this spittle-flecked praise can be a dangerous thing.  Blurbs with the words "genius," "masterpiece," and "Dickensian," tend to set my bar of expectations so high that the book inevitably fails to reach it once I start reading.  I hope that's not the case with Freedom.  I hope I'm just as excited as the rest of the clamoring crowd.

In TIME, Grossman tooted the trumpet, saying Freedom was "more like a 19th century novel than a 21st century one," adding:
Freedom is not the kind of Great American Novel that Franzen's predecessors wrote--not the kind Bellow and Mailer and Updike wrote.  The American scene is just too complex--and too aware of its own complexity, for anything to loom that large over it ever again.  But Freedom feels big in a different way, a way that not much other American fiction does right now.   It doesn't back down from the complexity.  To borrow a term from the visual arts, Franzen's writing has an enviable depth of field:  it keeps a great deal in focus simultaneously.
In the first sentence of his New York Times review, Sam Tanenhaus calls it "a masterpiece of American fiction."

Even Tanenhaus' colleague, the typically-dour Michiko Kakuntani (a critic who JF once called "the stupidest person in New York City," by the way), allows as how "Mr. Franzen has written his most deeply felt novel yet — a novel that turns out to be both a compelling biography of a dysfunctional family and an indelible portrait of our times."

Apart from the wet-mouthed reviews, Franzen enjoyed a particularly headline-heavy week thanks to two other individuals: Barrack Obama and Jodi Picoult.  The President was shopping in a bookstore during his Massachusetts vacation when the store's owner handed him an advance copy of Freedom.  This touched off a chorus of other bookstore owners who claimed Vineyard Haven's Bunch of Grapes had unfairly broken a publishing embargo by selling the book to the Reader in Chief ahead of schedule.  When they learned that the advance copy had been a "gift," they backed down, still grumbling, and agreed to abide by the on-sale date.  The White House reports that Mr. Obama is reading Freedom and finds it "entertaining."

(Thanks to crossed wires at Amazon, for a brief slice of time this week you could have read the entirety of Freedom in preview mode at the website.  I don't know if you had to read the whole thing in one gulp, or if you could save the preview.  Either way, I think I'd rather have the much more portable Kindle or hardcover to enjoy my time with the novel.)

Meanwhile, Jodi Picoult fired-off a Twitter-bitch, complaining that the New York Times, by running two separate reviews of the novel in one week, gave undue attention to an author whose sales were already pretty much assured (long before next Tuesday, Freedom was already in its second printing, now up to 300,000 copies).  This is not the first time the Times has double-reviewed a book, but Picoult decided to tweet her justifiable frustration and thus....the predictable cyclic literary gender wars were launched, sharp volleys coming from both camps over White Male Writers versus...Everybody Else.  It didn't take long for this to shift into the equally-hysteric Literary versus Commerical Fiction conversation.

In fairness, Picoult did not intend to start another battle and has publicly said she "has absolutely nothing against Jonathan Franzen."  But the resurrected gender and lit-com debates sizzled and flared across the Twitterverse and the Blog-o-sphere, spilling into the aisles of mainstream media.  Jennifer Weiner eventually joined the fray, complaining: "I think it's a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it's literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it's romance, or a beach book -- in short, it's something unworthy of a serious critic's attention."

From the sidelines, this was the kind of week which was heartening to see (People talking about reading!  An actual writer perched at the grocery checkout with the likes of Kim Kardashian's breasts!).  On the other hand, the arguments started to feel strained and redundant.  For those of you who were doing better things with your time, here's a quick scan of some of the singers in the chorus (feel free to skim downward if you're already bored by the whole dialogue):

NPR:
Here's an idea: If you're going to try to report on the fact that a couple of women who write books have tried to start a discussion of whether the mega-response to Jonathan Franzen's Freedom is symptomatic of a too-narrow view of interesting fiction, it might be a good idea to stay away from the formless and dismissive term "chick lit" in discussing them.

The Huffington Post:
Picoult may be right that "a lot of the same themes and wisdoms I find in commercial fiction are the same themes and wisdoms as what I see lauded in literary fiction" but there is still a difference in how well one writes about those themes and wisdoms. The truth is that authors like Picoult and Weiner can't hold a candle to Franzen.  But they also can't hold a candle to Margaret Drabble, Anita Brookner, Margaret Atwood, Elizabeth Strout, Anne Tyler, or a number of other "women" writers who write on many of the same themes as Franzen, Weiner and Picoult: family, life, children, work, relationships.  Why the two women are picking a fight with the coverage of Franzen's new novel is confusing. It seems more about professional jealousy than equal coverage or women's rights.

The Awl:
And of course it isn't necessary, for an individual writer trying to write one good book, to make sure that it represents, in every significant respect, every experience out there under the sun. Yes that's demanding too much. But it might, indeed, be the task of literary fiction as a whole to continually be revising its standards to be sure it's being as inclusive as it can be. In the age after we've realized that white men are not the end-all and be-all of humanity, it seems worth trying to build a canon that says if we are separated from one another by class and race and gender and any number of things, the very least we can do is recognize that in a literature that's really about "what it is to be human," every single one of those experiences must be given airtime. It's not a request; it's a requirement. This, literary fiction and its defenders do not do particularly well.
 
The Huffington Post (again):
Is Franzen the literary world's ideal representative?  Maybe not.  Maybe yes.  I don't think it matters.  What matters is that on the cover of one of the most widely read magazines in the country, a writer is looking directly back at us, and we are being told that His. Craft. Matters.  We should have no tolerance for the snipers, the agitators, the petty grievers who lament that Franzen was given this honor rather than someone else who may have been a better fit.  When the day comes that writers are commonly granted the accolades and recognition they deserve, we can argue over who deserves what and why.  But for now, Franzen is being lifted up for all of us.  It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  When our culture tells us that the ignorant are to be admired, that vacuousness is the new entertainment, the battle over ebooks feels like a battle over who has to sweep the deck on the Titanic.  When reading and intelligence is presented as overrated or unimportant, these small quibbles seem laughable.  Too few know the importance of the written word, how important letters are, how important thinkers are, how important books are.   And so here it is, in big bold letters: Great American Novelist.  Whether he is comfortable with it or not, Franzen is the representative for the entirety of publishing. His cover is telling millions of people, shouting from newsstands, that writers are still the soul of our culture.  That books still matter.  That books still matter.  And this, beyond anything, is reason to celebrate.  And this, beyond anything, is a reason to be hopeful.
In all the noise surrounding what the New York Times calls Franzenfury, I find it interesting that most people are focusing on the Man or the Issue, rather than what really matters: the Writing.  I'm also thinking that Jonathan Franzen must have one hell of a publicist or agent to be getting him this much sound and fury before Freedom is even unboxed in bookstores.  It's good to chatter about books and to see a writer gracing the cover of TIME for the first time since Stephen King appeared there 10 years ago, but really, can't we all just settle down, find a quiet corner, and read the book?

And, finally, to clear through all the clutter, I leave you with this parting shot from LitCritHulk who earlier this week posted his green-skin rant on Twitter:  FINAL WORD ON FRANZEN: EVERYBODY STFU UNTIL YOU ACTUALLY READ THE BOOK. WHICH NOT EVEN OUT FOR ANOTHER WEEK! HULK SMASH GUN-JUMPING CULTURE!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Friday Freebie: Frederick Reuss' "A Geography of Secrets"

Congratulations to Leah Kenworthy, who won a copy of Rosanne Cash's Composed, last week's Friday Freebie.

This week's giveaway is Frederick Reuss' new novel A Geography of Secrets, a sharp, incisive account of two men trying to come to grips with their murky pasts and the shadowy secrets of their present lives.  Reuss, the author of The Wasties and Mohr, is smart in all the right places and funny when he needs to be.

Library Journal called it "An understated but masterly work for fans of cosmopolitan, contemplative, contemporary prose."

My review of A Geography of Secrets will be posted at The Barnes and Noble Review in the near future.

If you'd like to get lost in Reuss' novel, all you have to do is answer this question:

What two famous spy-thriller writers are compared to Reuss at his publisher's website?  (Click here to go to Unbridled Books)

Email your answer to thequiveringpen@gmail.com

One entry per person, please.  In order to give everyone a fair shake in the contest, please e-mail the answer, rather than posting it in the comments section.  The contest closes at midnight on Sept. 2, at which time I will place all the correct respondents in a hat and draw the winning name. I'll announce the winner on Sept 3.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Rosanne Cash composes herself


Rosanne Cash sleeps with songs in her head.  “I dream they fall down through the centuries, from my distant ancestors, and come to me,” she tells us in her memoir, Composed.  “I dream of lullabies and sea shanties and keening cries and rhythms and stories and backbeats.”

As the daughter of Johnny Cash, Rosanne has never not been surrounded by music.  She was born one month before her father’s first single—“Cry, Cry, Cry”—was released; country music stars like Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette flowed in and out of the house like water; and later in life, she married Rodney Crowell, the producer of her first album released in the U.S.  In her 55 years, she’s lived under the sheltering canopy of rhythm, backbeat and melody; and yet, in the pages of her memoir, we find she has plenty to reveal about the way all of us non-Nashville types go about our lives.  It’s a book that might appear scattershot in its approach—non-linear and skipping like a scratched record across time and place—but when taken as a whole, it has the punch of a well-structured poem.  The book’s title, it seems, is a deliberate choice.

Memories of childhood dapple the pages alongside recollections of singing with her father at Carnegie Hall. We learn she has a fear of snakes, that she played Space Invaders in between takes on her album Seven Year Ache “as an antidote to anxiety,” and that her own daughters are the apple of her eye.  Most of it goes down gentle and smooth.  Even when it comes to telling about her brain surgery three years ago, she does so in an off-putting manner which is more humor than histrionics.  You’re hard-pressed to find scenes of her smashing hotel furniture or insisting that all her M&Ms be green.

She is, however, frank and honest in her confessions.  In her early twenties, she admits, she was “odd, removed, quiet, intensely lonely, and prone to living inside my own thoughts, often to my detriment and deep emotional disturbance.”  We learn that when, at age 23, she recorded her debut U.S. album, Right or Wrong, she “had attitude but no confidence, passion but very little real focus.”

When I dial her up on my iPod and listen to her soulful voice grab the notes and belt the ballads on those early recordings, it’s hard to tell she was riddled with self-doubt and often lacked the courage to continue in her famous father’s footsteps.

She says she’s written this slice of an autobiography not to set the record straight on the headlines of her life, “but to extend the poetry, and to find the more subtle melodies and themes in a life that on reflection seems much longer than the years I have lived.”

There are times when you wished Cash would fill in the blank spots she’s careful to sidestep (the messy public end to her 13-year marriage with Crowell, for instance), and then there are other times when she lapses into profoundly poetic passages:
If Magritte had painted my childhood, it would be a chaos of floating snakes, white oxfords, dead Chihuahuas, and pink hair rollers.  Bolts of gold lame and chiffon would be draped over everything, stained with coffee and burned with cigarettes, and garden hoes would be wielded by drunks with guitars.  Glass jars full of spiders and amphetamines would line the walls behind the sliding mirrored doors.  The landscape would be barren and steep and full of animal treachery.
Cash doesn’t dish celebrity dirt and generally walks a line down the middle of the road in her opinions of fellow artists.  The worst she has to say about someone is when she calls legendary music producer Brian Ahern “mercurial and moody.”

It’s in the moments far removed from the music scene when she cuts to the emotional quick.

Near the middle of the book, Cash recounts a winter night when she and Crowell were driving home from a gig and came across a traffic accident.  In the flickering wash of red police lights, they saw a pedestrian had been hit by a car.  The people standing over the man seemed in no hurry to load him into the ambulance and, as they rubbernecked from their passing car, the country-music couple knew he was dead.  They drove on and a mile down the road, they came upon a woman walking toward the scene of the accident.  When they asked if they could give her a ride, she got in, telling them, “I’m just going back up the road a little bit.  My neighbor there called and said someone had been hit by a car, and my husband was out takin’ a walk, and now I’m a little worried about him.”  Neither Cash nor Crowell could bring themselves to tell her about the body stretched out on the frozen ground.  They rode in silence, their stomachs churning as they listened to the woman chatter nervously about her husband.  When they dropped her off next to the ambulance, they watched through their closed windows as she crumpled and started screaming: “long, deep, circular cries rising from the roots of her body, like a train whistle disappearing into an endless series of tunnels, like the wrenching Gaelic echoes that hang in the graveyard, like the hiss that escapes from the permanently shattered heart.”

This episode is striking not just for the amount of attention Cash gives it or that it has nothing to do with Nashville or Hollywood or celebrity drug use, but because it is written in such a way that shows the strength of storytelling.  These pages could very well have been chipped from the fiction of Richard Ford or Andre Dubus.

In storytelling, Cash searches for, and finds, her release from the pressure of being a member of the royal court in Nashville.  She brings as much care to the writing of Composed as she does to the haunting melancholy songs on her Black Cadillac album, for instance.  “I wanted to be a writer,” she tells us, “and I wanted to do something transcendent and special with my life.”

She succeeds on all counts with Composed.  It’s a book that transcends the crowded field of drably-told memoirs and approaches something very close to Art.

As Composed comes to an end, Cash includes the eulogies she delivered at the nearly back-to-back funerals for her stepmother and father.  The tribute to June Carter Cash is the longer of the two and is beautifully shattering.  After reading it, if your throat isn’t tight and your nose starting to prickle a prelude to tears, then I’m sorry but your heart is made of granite.  Drawn from the well of grief, the eulogy also proves that Rosanne Cash can not only sing, she can write.  Oh brother, can she write!

*     *     *     *     *

As a reminder, you still have the chance to win a free copy of ComposedClick here to learn how to enter the Friday Freebie giveaway.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Soup and Salad: Salinger's Toilet, Anthony Doerr, another "Into the Wild" death, Dickey's "Deliverance," Readers reading

On today's menu:

1.  J. D. Salinger's toilet is up for auction on eBay.  Now those of you who thought Mr. Catcher in the Rye was full of shit will have a way to prove it.

2.  Writers on Process is a cool new discovery of mine.  It features interviews of writers.  And by "writers," I don't mean just those noble scribes who produce books.  The website also features songwriters, journalists, screenwriters, and poets (yes, they're scribes who produce books, but they're maligned and live in the publishing ghetto, so they're technically a breed apart).  There's a great interview with Anthony Doerr (who wears a pair of chainsaw ear protection muffs when he writes), author of The Shell Collector and Memory Wall.  Money quote:
I'm not sure I believe in writer's block.  I believe in failures of courage.  I have plenty of them everyday.  (I'm having one right now, for example, answering interview questions, rather than writing fiction).  It's always easier to answer email or fold laundry or pull weeds or lie face down on the floor than it is to confront the problems in whatever piece of writing you're working on.  So it's not necessarily that I get blocked as much as I get too afraid of facing whatever dead-end I've written myself into.  Sometimes the courage isn't there, and that's okay, but you can't let yourself have too many failures because then a piece of writing tends to freeze over, like a big lake, and then you'll need even more energy just to chop through the ice and get back to where you started.
Also, check out this interview with novelist Rosecrans Baldwin, whose novel You Lost Me There is on my short list of lusted-after books published this year.  And the website promises an upcoming chat with one of the best female singers to hit my ears this year, Lissie.

3.  Sad news from Fairbanks, Alaska: a person trying to reach Christopher McCandless' ill-fated schoolbus has drowned crossing the Teklanika River.  McCandless was the young self-annointed "Alexander Supertramp" who threw off the conventional shackles of society, then got in waaaaay over his head when he tried to survive a winter in remote Alaska.  Both Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild and the subsequent movie are highly recommended.  Kraukauer's description of the Teklanika is chilling and should be cautionary words for any "adventure tourists":  The water is too deep, too cold, too fast. As I stare into the Teklanika, I can hear rocks the size of bowling balls grinding along the bottom, rolled downstream by the powerful current…

4.  Dwight Garner's excellent re-appraisal of James Dickey's Deliverance in The New York Times has me wishing I'd read the book (another on my long-list of unreads!) instead of only having seen the movie.  On the occasion of the novel's 40th anniversary, Garner re-read the book while sitting beside a lake ("Dickey’s stuff is always best read beside a vaguely sinister body of water"). He goes on to appreciate the book for its unapologetic hairy-chested narrative: "His was a jangling American voice; in his amplitude he was the closest thing the South had to a deep-fried Norman Mailer."

5.  And finally, as I leave you today, I send you off to Steve McCurry's blog which features some heartening* photographs of readers caught in the act...


*"heartening" because now we have photographic evidence of that rare, elusive species, Homo Bibliophile

Monday, August 23, 2010

Michael Cunningham and Jodi Picoult kick me in the ass


This might be the only time you see Michael Cunningham and Jodi Picoult together in the same blog post here at The Quivering Pen, but I'm using them today to help kick-start what has been the writing equivalent of running a pickup truck into a muddy ditch and attempting to climb out with bald tires.  In short, the Dreaded Doldrums have come to pay me a visit again.  It's been about a week since I did any serious writing on Fobbit (typing a period in a sentence lacking one, and changing a character's hair color from blonde to brunette does not count as "revision").  I've lost focus and have succumbed to distraction.  My office has never been cleaner, I've refolded the unused Kleenex in the box on my desk, and I waste incredible epochs of time on the Internet (I knew I was in trouble when I requested a Facebook friendship with the Raisin Growers Union of California.  I don't even LIKE raisins!  In fact, I downright HATE the lame-ass wrinkly snacks!).  So, in another one of those woe-is-me cycles, I find it's time to pull myself up by the bootstraps and get back to the work at hand (note: I do not now, nor have I ever, owned a pair of bootstraps, nor would I know which way to pull them; I just like the giddy-up sound of the word).

For inspiration, I turn to the Quotes file on my computer's hard drive.  There, I find a couple of choice nuggets by Mr. Cunningham and Ms. Picoult.  I've yet to read anything by either of them, but I've got Cunningham's upcoming novel By Nightfall sitting in my long-range to-read pile; and I've often wanted to find out whether all the fuss about Picoult is justified (The Tenth Circle was a Christmas gift to myself a few years ago, but remains unread).  Nonetheless, I like what each of them had to say about the kind of wiffle-waffle, bluesy state in which I currently find myself.

I can’t distinguish the parts I wrote on the good days from the parts I wrote on the bad.  I’ve come to believe that the inspiration is always there, like an electrical current, and what varies is our access to it.  And I’ve found that the best way to cope with that is with diligence, is with a kind of daily determination.
--Michael Cunningham, from an interview in
Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings and Everything in Between
 
 
Writing is total grunt work.  A lot of people think it's all about sitting and waiting for the muse.  I don't buy that.  It's a job.  There are days when I really want to write, days when I don't.  Every day I sit down and write.  You can always edit something bad.  You can't edit something blank.  That has always been my mantra.
--Jodi Picoult, from an interview in The Guardian
So, here's to not editing blank pages.  Onward, to the finish line!


Friday, August 20, 2010

Friday Freebie: Rosanne Cash's "Composed"

Congratulations to Lauren Bufferd who won a copy of Mary Sharratt's Daughters of the Witching Hill, last week's Friday Freebie.

This week's giveaway is Rosanne Cash's new memoir Composed.  I'm about halfway through the book right now and am really enjoying it.  I usually avoid celebrity autobiographies like orchards of poison ivy, but Cash is bracingly honest and offers some surprising behind-the-scenes tales which add a new perspective to her songs.

If nothing else, Composed takes me back to my freshman college dorm room, circa 1982.  If you had a time-travel camera, you could geo-locate me there in Laramie, Wyoming (White Hall, 11th Floor) and see me standing in the middle of the closet-sized room, singing into a ballpoint pen microphone:
We'll rendezvous on Venus
And dance on Saturn's rings
We'll drink a little moonlight
And ride the old man's wings
I do believe you love me
I wish with all my might
Somewhere in the stars
I'll be meeting you tonight
Oh yeah, I was a fanboy in the worst sense of the word.  This was back in the cassette-tape era and it was pretty hard to skip over songs you didn't like.  In this instance, it didn't make one hound-dog tick of a difference because (despite what Cash writes in Composed) all the tracks on her early albums Seven Year Ache and Somewhere in the Stars were perfect and I took them to heart as if they were written just for me--which, in my teen-movie-addled head, I actually thought they were.  Rosanne Cash was just one of my Teen Dream Queens (Linda Ronstadt, Nicolette Larson, and Emmylou Harris were also in the club).  Sadly for her--but happily for me--she was dethroned one year later when I found Elizabeth Jean, the one true love of my life (and it wasn't "somewhere in the stars").  Yes, reader, I married her.

But enough of my post-adolescent confessions.  You're asking: "How can I get me some of that country-western tell-all goodness?"  All you have to do is answer this ridiculously-easy question (hey, I know you're busy and don't have time to waste with a bunch of Googling):

What is the name of Rosanne Cash's father?

Email your answer to thequiveringpen@gmail.com

One entry per person, please.  In order to give everyone a fair shake in the contest, please e-mail the answer, rather than posting it in the comments section.  The contest closes at midnight on Aug. 26, at which time I will place all the correct respondents in a hat and draw the winning name.  I'll announce the winner on Aug. 27.