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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Errol Louis on Ernest Hemingway, Westbrook Pegler, and other great “deadline artists”

Guest blog post by Errol Louis, co-editor with Jesse Angelo and John Avlon of Deadline Artists: America’s Greatest Newspaper Columns (published last month by Overlook Press)

The opportunity and obligation of the newspaper columnist, Finley Peter Dunne once said, is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Columnists are supposed to be truth-tellers—literary private eyes working for the public good.

But what sets the newspaper column apart is its improvisational nature: the near miracle that stories composed on a daily deadline can resonate with beauty and power decades later.

A long list of literary masters honed their craft writing newspaper columns, including Ernest Hemingway, O. Henry, Langston Hughes, Damon Runyon, and Mark Twain. Generations of students have pored over works like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and For Whom the Bell Tolls, unaware that their authors also tackled the issues of the day—war, crime, sports, politics—in thoughtful, delightful essays that hold their own alongside better-known works.

One example. Here is Hemingway, writing for the Toronto Star in 1921—years before he published his first short-story collection—displaying the punchy trademark style so many writers later sought to imitate:
Anthony d’Andrea, pale and spectacled, defeated candidate for alderman of the 19th ward, Chicago, stepped out of the closed car in front of his residence and, holding an automatic pistol in his hand, backed gingerly up the steps.

Reaching back with his left hand to press the door bell, he was blinded by two red jets of flame from the window of the next apartment, heard a terrific roar and felt himself clouted sickeningly in the body with the shock of the slugs from the sawed-off shotgun.

It was the end of the trail that had started with a white-faced boy studying for the priesthood in a little Sicilian town. It was the end of a trail that had wound from the sunlit hills of Sicily across the sea and into the homes of Chicago’s nouveau riche. . . . It is all part of the unfinished story of the gunman’s political war that is raging in Chicago at present.
The column, called “Chicago Gang War,” is as fine a piece of writing as you’re likely to find anywhere, and an intriguing true-to-life precursor to “The Killers,” Hemingway’s celebrated 1927 story about two hit men hunting down a doomed prizefighter in a Chicago suburb.

But it’s remarkably difficult to find “Chicago Gang War” online or in print. The same is true for literally thousands of fantastic works of short nonfiction by great columnists that get published in newspapers, only to vanish forever the next day. Few anthologies of newspaper columns have ever been published, and a great many are now out of print.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Frank Rich, Roger Ebert, Nathan Heller, Camille Paglia on Pauline Kael

No one would have more thoroughly enjoyed reviewers’ recent efforts to characterize what was so compelling and distinctive about film critic Pauline Kael’s writing than “the grande dame” (in Roger Ebert’s phrasing) herself. What has prompted these endeavors is the coincidence of two companionable books being published this month: Brian Kellow’s biography Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark and The Library of America’s new anthology The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael.

Now on to the fun:

Frank Rich, “Roaring at the Screen,” in the front-page review of this Sunday's issue of The New York Times Book Review
She upended journalistic criticism the way contemporaneous New Journalists like Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson revolutionized reportage. Her essays, fiercely present in the moment and epic in length, buttonholed readers so they’d feel as if they were sitting next to her in the dark, seeing everything she saw. She fired up her exultantly vernacular American prose as if she were writing high-octane fiction, not passing judgment on “Cabaret.” . . . You could disagree with her judgments, as I did at least half the time, and still find her an invigorating, inspired and entertaining connector of culture’s dots whatever the bottom-line verdict on the film at hand. . . If you want to understand what it was like to be in the audience during America’s thrilling, now vanished age of movies, you must begin with Kael.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie: America’s pure product and the gift of a young virgin

Guest blog post by Anne Trubek, critic, blogger, and author of A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses

If you read the critical literature, Theodore Dreiser is one giant American cliché. He is boorish, and dull, and a poor stylist (“rhetorical bungling” is how Sandy Petrey put it); he is self-made, and crude. Dreiser has “the awkwardness, the chaos, the heaviness which we associate with reality,” Lionel Trilling said. Critics who champion him do so because “dullness and stupidity must naturally suggest a virtuous democracy.” (Trilling again). You get to imagining Dreiser as some American golem, made from native mud.

His best novel, Sister Carrie, comes a respectable thirty-third on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best. When Sinclair Lewis accepted his Nobel Prize in 1930, he said that Dreiser, “marching alone, usually unappreciated, often hated, [had] cleared the trail from Victorian and Howellsian timidity and gentility in American fiction to honesty and boldness and passion of life. Without his pioneering, I doubt if any of us could, unless we liked to be sent to jail, seek to express life and beauty and terror.” Even when championed, he is our pure product.

And you have to admit Sister Carrie has it all. It is about the rise of a fallen woman, and Carrie’s upward quest takes us through low-wage factory jobs, life as the mistress of a traveling salesman, accomplice to theft, life in New York as a chorus girl, strikes, strikebreakers, celebrity and suicide. The novel’s troubled publishing history illustrates how provocative it was for its time. Women who lose their virtue were to be punished or killed. For Dreiser’s publisher, Doubleday, Page & Co., and by extension the American reading public, it was all too much, too much America and bad faith.

The first person to read the novel at Doubleday was Frank Norris, another young realist, who had just published his first novel, McTeague. Norris enthusiastically recommended Sister Carrie for publication. After a senior editor read and liked the book as well, Walter Page sent Dreiser an encouraging note—“we are very much pleased with your novel”—and invited him to a meeting. Dreiser left with the understanding that his novel would be published that fall, in 1900, although no contract was signed. A few weeks later, Frank Doubleday, the senior partner, returned from a European trip and shortly thereafter the firm’s interest began to lag. One story has Doubleday shocked by Sister Carrie’s seamy depiction of urban life. Another holds that Doubleday’s wife strongly objected to the book.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Alan Heathcock on James Salter, Joy Williams, Cormac McCarthy, and the works that inspired him to become a writer

Volt by Alan Heathcock
(Graywolf Press, 2011)
We asked Alan Heathcock, who this year published Volt, his debut collection of stories, to join our series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, poetry, history, and essays and tell us which works have influenced his writing. He responded with quite a formidable roster:
James Salter, Dusk and Other Stories. Salter is often heralded as one of the greatest composers of prose in American letters. Though I find his sentences to be admirable in their gorgeous simplicity, I feel not enough attention has been given to his incredible gifts as a storyteller. I’ve read and studied the stories “Dirt” and “Dusk” many times, and count the enigmatic and undeniably compelling “Akhnilo” as a perfect study in suspense, and one of the greatest short stories I’ve ever read. 
Joy Williams, Taking Care. I read this collection when I was a young man deciding what to do with my life, the thought of being a writer a pale flicker behind my left eye. These stories were taut and often brutal and always true and unflinching. I was riveted, delivered into full empathy with these badly behaving characters. Then I read “Winter Chemistry,” which begins as a coming of age story about two girls infatuated with their chemistry teacher, and ends in stunning violence, a story that moved me so deeply that the flicker roiled up into a flame and I knew, closing the book, I must pursue the life of a writer. 
Chris Offutt, Kentucky Straight. I’d long been exposed to the warm and cozy stories of Garrison Keillor, stories that didn’t exactly resemble the small towns I’d known, the towns where my family had lived for generations. When I read Kentucky Straight, I was bolstered into not writing the friendly myth of small towns, but to strip away the romantic veneer and expose the truth. Offutt’s stories dealt with religion and violence, grudges and love, all without a single trick of prose, or even the slightest desire to taint the beauty of the unpretty lives of those who reside in these troubled hollows. 
Joyce Carol Oates, Upon the Sweeping Flood and Other Stories. While teaching at Boise State University, I had a macho ranch-raised kid declare he never read women writers because they only wrote meek stories about domestic life. To combat his ignorance, I gave him the story “Upon the Sweeping Flood” from the collection of the same name. The story—about a man who drives headlong into a hurricane only to become stuck in a farm-house with a teenage boy and girl—rages with the ferocity of a great storm and ends with possibly the most shocking violence I’ve ever read. It made the ranch-kid eat his hat (and words). Oates has written many great books, and this one, though not discussed as often as her award-winning novels, is, in my opinion, her best work, and deserves to be mentioned as one of the best collections of stories in the latter half of the twentieth century. 
Brian Moore, Black Robe. I’m fascinated by “pioneer” stories, stories where characters are stripped away of all community and civility and forced to face the truth of their own humanity. In Black Robe, a young Jesuit missionary must make his way to a mission deep in the northern wilderness. He must endure weeks of traveling through hostile country ruled by the Huron, Iroquois, and Algonkin tribes, his spirit challenged at every bend in the seemingly endless river, at every sleepless night, at every life-threatening confrontation. Redemption is eventually won, in a riveting tribute to courage and faith. 
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead. A virtually plotless novel about an aging pastor, soon to die, delivering his begats in the form of letters to his young son. With this description, I put off reading this novel for a long time. I need action, I thought. I want plot. I need bombast. Yet, what I hadn’t accounted for was a depth of truth telling and wisdom I’d never experience in fiction. Would that be enough to draw me in, to hold me rapt, to alter the way I understood myself as a moral creature in a world that has often felt unquiet? Yes, and yes, and yes. If I can accrue a fraction of the insight Robinson delivers through her character, Pastor John Ames Boughton, then I will have had a life well lived. 
Cormac McCarthy, The Road. For me there's Cormac and then all of the rest. I’ve read, and admired, all of his novels, and think several of them to be perfect. His aesthetic accomplishment with Blood Meridian is, I believe, unrivaled, and the depravity of the psychopath in Child of God is as unnerving as anything I’ve ever read. But The Road reads like scripture, making me consider the world anew, striking so deep into my psyche it stirs emotions I’d long denied existed. Inspired into ambition, I finished this novel and immediately began to read it again, knowing that to write a book like The Road would be my life’s work. Onward.
Reviewing Volt for The New York Times Book Review, Donald Ray Pollock wrote, “There is no glamour here, no contemporary angst or frivolity; apart from the occasional cellphone, in fact, little of the modern world is apparent. . . Heathcock’s prose, spare and muscular yet poetic, fits the foreboding, God-fearing nature of the stories. “ On NPR Michael Shaub reported, “There's nothing easy about trying to distill tragedy and pain into the space of one short story. In Volt, Heathcock does it eight times, with a remarkable sense of compassion, and a deeply felt understanding of the mechanics of mourning.” Heathcock’s stories have won the National Magazine Award in fiction, and have been selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories anthology. Currently a Literature Fellow for the state of Idaho, Heathcock teaches fiction writing at Boise State University.

Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:
Related LOA works: Into the Blue: American Writers on Aviation and Spaceflight (includes an excerpt from James Salter’s autobiographical first novel The Hunters); American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940s to Now (includes “Family” by Joyce Carol Oates)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Andy Borowitz on the challenge of selecting the 50 funniest American writers

Comedian Andy Borowitz, who is the author of six books and who reaches millions of readers worldwide through the Borowitz Report, recently spoke with us about The 50 Funniest American Writers, the new anthology of humor writing that he edited for The Library of America and which is available today from booksellers everywhere.

How and when did you first get interested in humor writing?
I started getting interested in comedy when I was around ten. I grew up in Cleveland, and there was a revival house called The Old Mayfield that showed classic comedy films: the Marx Brothers, Chaplin, Harold Lloyd. My dad used to take me to see them on Sunday nights. Around this time—the late 1960s—Woody Allen started coming out with his first comedies, Take the Money and Run and Bananas. I started reading Allen’s collections of prose humor and began writing full-length parodies of detective novels. So I was very into it by the time I was eleven or twelve.

Which writers most influenced you along the way?
Besides Woody Allen, Ian Frazier’s writing for The New Yorker had a big impact on me. In high school I read The Magic Christian by Terry Southern, which I still think might be the funniest American comic novel. But I can’t say that Terry Southern’s style influenced me so much as it just flat-out made me laugh.

Why 50 writers?
Well, of course, 50 is a totally arbitrary number. I started with a list of 100 (another arbitrary number) and the Library of America helped me whittle it down to 50—the theory being that the resulting list would be more selective and the book itself would be more compact. I’m very happy with that decision, what with brevity being the soul of wit and all that.

Why does 50 Funniest American Writers jump from Mark Twain in 1879 to George Ade in 1904? Was there only one funny American in the nineteenth century? And why so many recent writers?
The period from 1879 to 1904 in America was known as “The Era of Bad Feelings,” in which everyone was grumpy and no one said or wrote anything remotely funny. Actually, that’s a lie. The book is very heavily tilted toward more recent writers because I wanted it to be entertaining to today’s readers. With the exception of Mark Twain, very little humor writing of the nineteenth century resonates today, in my opinion. And since I edited the book, my opinion is the only one that really matters, right?

Are American writers funnier than writers in other countries?
I have no idea, since I don’t read many other languages, although something tells me we won’t be seeing The 50 Funniest North Korean Writers any time soon.

You’ve written for TV, movies, theater, and standup in addition to writing for print publication. Are there significant differences between what works in these different media, and did this influence/affect the choices for the book?
They’re all different. The most obvious difference is that in theatrical media—film, stage, standup—the actual performance is so key to what makes something funny. I had experiences as a writer when I’d write a script that everyone thought was funny when they read it but then fell flat when an actor tried to perform it. Conversely, some scripts don’t make you laugh at all but when you see them performed you’re in tears. So in compiling the book I tried to take anything performance-based off the table and focused on material that was meant to be read. There are some exceptions—some writing by stand-ups like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce are included—but my arbitrary requirement was that their work had to be published in prose form in order to be considered. As it stands, I think the writing by stand-ups that I’ve included works as prose humor, so I’m happy with those choices.

Do you notice any particular trends or themes emerging from the book, maybe even things you didn’t expect?
Writers are drawn to the same formats again and again and again. The Onion is famous for writing parody news, but Veronica Geng did it, too.  Dozens of writers have parodied advice columns, and I’ve included two by Charles Portis and George Saunders. Dorothy Parker wrote wonderful stream-of-conscious monologues, and decades later, Jenny Allen is doing just that. The expression that there’s nothing new under the sun is true—including that expression.

What was your greatest discovery in the course of putting the book together?
Langston Hughes was funny. When people look at the list of the 50 funniest Americans, they sometimes think I’m out of my mind for including him. But then, they haven’t read his “Simple” stories, and I hadn’t read them before I started working on the book. There are other so-called “serious” writers, like Sinclair Lewis, who are in the book because they were capable of truly funny writing. The idea of categorizing writers as “serious” or “funny” seems kind of simplistic to me. Was Evelyn Waugh a serious writer or a funny one—and while we’re on the subject, how about Shakespeare? I’m glad I was able to include Hughes and Lewis in the collection, even if they don’t seem like the most obvious candidates for the 50 funniest.

What about the greatest disappointment—the writer or piece you were sure would work but didn’t?
Some of our greatest comic novelists—Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Carl Hiaasen, and Donald Westlake, to name four—aren’t in here. I think it’s hard to excerpt ten pages from a comic novel and capture what’s funny about the larger work. I’m already catching hell from Vonnegut fans! But the Library of America has already brought out one volume of Vonnegut and is bringing out another, so maybe all will be right with the world.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Remembering Fred Shuttlesworth, civil rights pioneer who made history on street corners

Fred Shuttlesworth, an icon of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, died last week at 89. With Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy, Shuttlesworth was one of the “Big Three” who planned and led the protests and demonstrations that led to the landmark Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

While both were founding members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, Shuttlesworth and King came from quite different backgrounds, as The New York Times obituary notes:
Dr. King was a polished product of Atlanta’s black middle class. A graduate of Morehouse College, he held a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Boston University. Fred Shuttlesworth was a child of poor black Alabama whose ministerial degree was from an unaccredited black school. (He later earned a master’s degree in education from Alabama State College.)
The Times quotes Diane McWhorter, author of Carry Me Home, her Pulitzer Prize–winning account of the civil rights struggle in Birmingham in 1963:
Among the youthful “elders” of the movement, [Shuttlesworth] was Martin Luther King’s most effective and insistent foil: blunt where King was soothing, driven where King was leisurely, and most important, confrontational where King was conciliatory—meaning, critically, that he was more upsetting than King in the eyes of the white public.
In “Tear Gas and Hymns,” his account of the siege of the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, during the violent days of the May 1961 Freedom Rides, Murray Kempton describes Shuttlesworth as “the merriest agitator of them all.” The Guardian’s obituary relates a revealing incident from the same period:
When the riders were beaten up in Anniston, Alabama, Shuttlesworth, on his own initiative, organized a convoy of 15 cars to rescue them. Later, when the riders were surrounded by a mob of about 1,000 armed white people, Shuttlesworth escorted another civil rights leader, James Farmer, to the church. "He was either insane or the most courageous man I have ever met," Farmer said later. "Shuttlesworth just walked through them, as cool as a cucumber. I think they were intimidated by his boldness."
In January 1963 Shuttlesworth invited King to come to Birmingham and make the city the center of the next stage of the civil rights struggle. While King prepared for the offensive by touring the country and giving twenty-eight speeches in sixteen cities, Shuttlesworth engineered the strategy, studying city laws and march routes. The demonstrations began in March but the climax came in May, when the organizers recruited schoolchildren to participate. On the first day that the children marched, school buses ferried some 959 children off to detention areas. The next day Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor deployed police dogs and fire hoses on the young protesters. Images of children being tossed in the air by torrents of water were broadcast nationwide. In Eyes on the Prize Juan Williams quotes David Vann, an attorney and eyewitness to these events, as saying that when Connor’s troops attacked the children “in the twinkling of an eye the whole black community consolidated . . . behind Dr. King.”

Shuttlesworth himself was hosed and knocked against a wall with such force that he was hospitalized for several days. When Connor heard this, according to Claude Sitton’s report in The New York Times, he exclaimed, “I waited a week to see Shuttlesworth get hit with a hose. I’m sorry I missed it.” Told that Shuttlesworth had been taken away in an ambulance, Connor replied, “I wish they’d carried him away in a hearse.”

Shuttlesworth was never daunted. An NPR memorial quotes historian Horace Huntley: “He would lead demonstrations, and he would call Bull Connor and say, ‘Bull, I will be on such and such corner; if you want to be part of history, be there.’”

Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:
Related LOA works: Reporting Civil Rights: Part One: American Journalism 1941–1963 (includes Murray Kempton on the 1961 Freedom Rides and many articles on Birmingham in 1963)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Tom Sleigh on Dick Barnes's A Word Like Fire: “virtuosic, tactful, and intelligent”

Tom Sleigh, whose eighth book of poems, Army Cats, has just been published, joins our continuing series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, history, essays, and poetry to call attention to “one of the most interesting and ravishing achievements of the past half century.”

The word "genius" can taint overnight. But Dick Barnes has written poems of such fresh perception, intelligence, and spoken vitality that it would be timid, or worse, stupid—to hedge. As far as I know, in his lifetime he won no prizes (he died in 2000), received no accolades, and published his poems with small presses where he could.

I came across his posthumously published selected poems, A Word Like Fire, in a used bookstore four years ago when a jacket comment by David Ferry—one of our absolute best poets, original and strange in ways that Barnes shares—brought his work to my attention. Outside of California, he's virtually unknown—and not all that well known in his home state either. For the California Barnes writes about with such passionate sympathy is the rural California kind. And when I say rural, I don't mean the quasi-suburban Big Sur/Humboldt County, Zen/Ananda Commune/Beat kind of rural. I mean truly rural—the north of LA ranching/farming/trapping/hunting/heavy-equipment-operating kind around Barstow and Needles, the chaparral desert kind of the San Bernardino Mountains and the Mojave Desert.

By locating him in this milieu, don't think for a moment that he's one of those tough-guy sentimental, self-consciously countrified poets who thrive on local color. His complex relation to his community of ranchers, trappers, farmers, ne'er-do-wells, and intellectual misfits is nuanced in the way that Chekhov in his best short stories is nuanced. No one has written a more perceptive, and humanely considered poem about what used to be called "a renegade," Willie Boy, a young Paiute man who in 1909 was the subject of a massive manhunt. The poem negotiates white and Native American sensitivities with a preternatural feel for the racial, cultural and moral unintelligibility of the two communities to each other:

If you were a young Paiute in 1905, and got arrested
for drunken disturbance of the Anglo peace
and the sheriff took your picture in the county jail,
you'd look okay—you'd look about the way Willie Boy did
inward during adversity, solitary, brave enough;
but if I were a young Paiute in 1909, and wished somehow
to alleviate solitude, and tried to become intelligible,
got a white shirt with sleeve garters, a necktie
with polkadots, a pretty good hat, and even a fountain pen,
then went to a photographer in Banning and paid him
to take my picture, I'd have that blank mad hopeless look,
an expression you see now and then on an outlaw horse,
fierce but drawn back, my eyes the wrong side out.
It's the look of a man who knows nobody sees things his way,
whatever wavering way that might be—knows, and can't say.
Come down the dry side of the mountain, you get into
      juniper and piñon pine
then at a certain elevation you see a lone greasewood or Joshua
among the granite boulders—what is there to say about that.
Maybe it was a woman made him feel that way—
      not that she willed it
but it was his reaction. Let him go, then, let him kill to get her
then kill her too when she can't keep pace in flight over the desert;
hounded down let him shoot three horses from under the posse
but hit one of the men, a white man, in dismay—
that won't make him intelligible . . .

The moral complexity of his stance, in which he both identifies with Willie Boy, but never oversteps the bounds of that sympathy, is as virtuosic, tactful, and intelligent as Henry James. And as I said, his frame of reference isn't limited to this kind of character study. Though obviously no Mandarin in his attitudes, other poems range with complete ease through Old English and Renaissance literature, as well as displaying a deep knowledge of biology, astrophysics, and classical Chinese poetry: Barnes sees the world through an astonishing variety of lenses.

In referring more to prose writers like Chekhov and James than to poets, I want to stress that his poems are dense with lived experience, adult dilemmas, and what Yeats once called "the fury and mire of human veins." His immersion in his subjects makes most poetry look a little thin. Plainspoken, spare, his poems are immensely readable: their spiritual and ethical complexities may or may not resolve, but his language and syntax is always precise, complicated when it needs to be. The syntactic sweep, and recursive qualifications of "Willie Boy," especially in the last nine lines quoted above, demonstrate an uncanny knack for anticipating a reader's qualms about the speaker's shifting stance toward such material. And never does Barnes try to elide his own moral and spiritual difficulties by pretending that verbal murk and blur equal profundity. Barnes's verbal integrity is of a piece with his great tact toward the reader and his subjects, and his ability to see many different sides of existence at once.

With "drunken disturbance of the Anglo peace," in the second line of the excerpt above, Barnes takes a rote phrase, "disturbance of the peace," and through his intonation twists it into a subtle "screw you" to the Anglo community's sense of "law and order." And in the next few lines, his casual tone modulates into plain-spoken eloquence. The colloquial ease of "okay" and "you'd look about the way Willie Boy did," suddenly torques into a psychological insight wholly unexpected, both for its penetration, its sudden rigorous formality, and the unsentimental clarity that "brave enough" implies. And what's most impressive is how Barnes is careful to put this guess at Willie's character into the second person—the poet tactfully distinguishes between Willie and his projections onto Willie. And in that gesture, he aligns himself against the Anglo community that could care less about Willie's inner life just as long as he doesn't turn up drunk in the streets. Very few poets can pull off these lightning quick shifts of diction, viewpoint, and imaginative sympathy, and make them seem totally natural. I'm tempted to say that Barnes's poetry, for all its apparent modesty of means, is one of the most interesting and ravishing achievements of the past half century.

About Tom Sleigh’s poems Seamus Heaney has written: “Tom Sleigh’s poetry is hard-earned and well founded. I greatly admire the way it refuses to cut emotional corners and yet achieves a sense of lyric absolution.” Sleigh’s first book After One (1983) won the Houghton Mifflin New Poetry Series Prize. Reviewing his second book Waking (1990) in The New York Times Book Review, Liz Rosenberg wrote, “[Tom Sleigh] has the precision of a diamond cutter, yet his work is often surrealistic, dreamlike . . . [he] is nearly as prodigal with his gifts as Yeats, and a mythic quality enters into everyday gestures in his poems.” His last collection Space Walk (2007) won the Kingsley Tufts Award (a $100,000 prize). In 2011 Sleigh became the first recipient of the John Updike Award, a new prize established by Mrs. John Updike and given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters to a writer “in mid-career who has demonstrated consistent excellence.” Sleigh is currently director of the Hunter College Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing, where he also teaches poetry writing.

Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:
Excerpt of “Willie Boy” from A Word Like Fire: Selected Poems by Dick Barnes (2005). Copyright © 2005 by Patricia Barnes. Reprinted by permission of Handsel Books (an imprint of Other Press).

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

J Courtney Sullivan on whom she re-reads:
W. H. Auden, Dorothy Parker, Jane Smiley, Richard Yates

Maine by
J. Courtney Sullivan
(Knopf, 2011)
J. Courtney Sullivan, who recently published her second novel, Maine, joins our continuing series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, history, essays, and poetry. She writes about the books she returns to for “awe and inspiration.”
When I was growing up in the suburbs of Boston, I imagined that someday I would live in New York, in an apartment straight out of a Woody Allen movie—small, but well-lit and cozy, with books piled high on every table and chair.

The end result was not far from the fantasy. Like most writers, I am a reader first. I doubt you’ll ever catch me on a Kindle: I like to have my books all around me. Even though I refuse to part with my books, I’m not likely to re-read most of them. But I do go back to a few, especially when I’m writing. Dog-eared and underlined on nearly every page, these are the ones that fill me with a sense of awe and inspiration and, okay, a little bit of jealousy. Reading any one of them can’t help but make you a better writer.

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
When people ask about my favorite novel, A Thousand Acres always jumps quickly to mind. I first read it in high school, and was drawn in by the riveting, detailed descriptions of Iowa farm country, and the inner lives of the women raised there. I read it again in college, side-by-side with King Lear. Only then did I truly appreciate what a triumph of form Smiley achieves. Scene for scene, the novel is a modern day retelling of Shakespeare’s play from the daughters’ perspectives. Larger social issues like molestation, environmental concerns, and rigid gender roles get explored through the domestic lives of one family. Every page is pitch perfect.

The Collected Poems of W. H. Auden
Reading great poetry is the best thing a fiction writer can do. When telling a story that spans several hundred pages, I can get caught up in plot, eager to type faster than my fingers allow. A generous helping of Auden, who chose each word and turn of phrase with such incredible care, can pare this instinct. Reading just one of his closely crafted stanzas reminds me to slow down and reexamine my sentences. I have many beloved Auden poems, and my favorites change from year to year. Some of the best, in my opinion, are “Brussels in Winter,” “Musée Des Beaux Arts,” “Music Is International,” “A Healthy Spot.” My two favorites at present: “Many Happy Returns” and “For Friends Only.”

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
This novel blows me away on so many levels. Yates evokes suburbia in the nineteen-fifties with remarkable precision and depth. Other novelists have of course done it, but none so well. Yates’s prose is at once haunting and hilarious. As he gets inside the heads of a discontented married couple and their neighbors, he brings each one’s hopes and disappointments into such sharp focus that they seem to be portraits of real people. The inner workings of the husband, Frank, in particular, are masterstrokes of genius. I admire this book for many reasons, one of which is the author’s ability to build toward a shocking, yet believable, ending. He adds layers of suspense so deftly that you never want to put it down.

The Portable Dorothy Parker
The word portable in the title is fitting. Fourteen years have passed since I received this book (as an unlikely sweet sixteen present) and it has traveled with me everywhere I’ve been since. Nearly every page is underlined and marked up, and looking it over, I can tell you at exactly which stage of my life I made each of the markings. I didn’t read the book straight through; I discovered it part by part, according to what I could handle at that point in my life. (In a way, the book is like those designer Swedish high chairs that everyone in Brooklyn now seems to have—your baby can sit in this booster seat before he’s even able to hold up his head, and then later he can convert it into a futon to use in his college dorm!)

First, as a teenager, I loved the angsty love poems. (And wrote a few bad copies myself.) In college, I’d stay up late reading Parker’s short stories. Her characters had names like Mimi and Midge, and their observations were razor sharp. In “The Lovely Leave,” a woman’s soldier husband comes home just for an afternoon and she is cross with him for leaving so soon. “I like you in black,” he says, trying to keep the peace by complimenting her dress. “At moments like this,” she replies, “I almost wish I were in it for another reason.” Later, I discovered the genius of Parker’s book reviews—her best work of all, in my opinion. There is one purple Post-it sticking out of my copy, marking Parker’s February 1959 Esquire review of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. “The reader . . . has always the feeling that to know the young woman would be to find her a truly awful pest.” You must read this review immediately, if not sooner.
Reviewing for The New York Times, Janet Maslin called Sullivan’s debut novel, Commencement (2009), about the intertwined lives of four Smith College grads, “one of this year’s most inviting summer novels.” “Take Mary McCarthy’s The Group,” wrote Gloria Steinem, “add a new feminist generation striving to understand everything from themselves and their mothers to the notion of masculinity that fuels sex trafficking, and you get this generous-hearted, brave first novel.” Sullivan’s second novel, Maine, published in June, also appealed to summer readers, spending more than a month on The New York Times Best Sellers list. "I have never stayed at this cottage in Maine, or any cottage in Maine,” remarked Meg Wolitzer, “but no matter: I now feel I know what it's like being in a family that comes to the same place summer after summer, unpacking their familiar longings, slights, shorthand conversation, and ways of being together. Maine is evocative, funny, close-quartered, and highly appealing."

Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:
Related LOA works: American Wits: An Anthology of Light Verse (includes poems by W. H. Auden and Dorothy Parker); The 50 Funniest American Writers: An Anthology of Humor from Mark Twain to The Onion (includes “The Waltz” by Dorothy Parker)
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