Saturday, August 7, 2010

Writers I Recommend: A Baker's Dozen. Part 3

And so the last 4. Joyce Carol Oates, John Gardner, Robert Graves, and Gene Wolfe did not make my list because, although none of them are read nearly enough, they get more attention than the writers who have made my list. Now, on toward my conclusion...

10. Francine Prose
Like my choice of Halberstam, this is based on one book I really loved. Prose has done some superb writing over a 40 year career, but her Marie Laveau is one hell of an engaging novel. A New Orleans that does Anne Rice one better, or so I think. Haven't read it in 20 years, but I still think about it and its excellence.

11. Peter Straub
Most famous for Ghost Story and for his collaborations with Stephen King. It's too bad, because his mysteries are even better than his more preternatural stuff. I'd recommend Mystery, Koko, and The Throat. They are long, complicated, densely plotted and written. Straub is now becoming acknowledged more in the academy, and it's damn well time: I'd love to do a class on him someday.

12. Nathanael West
Oh, such a good American Modernist! Funny, dark, almost an exact contemporary of Fitzgerald, strikingly different, and (I think) better. Savage take on American society that does not take prisoners. Good to see American Library picking up his stuff: better to see a bunch of y'all reading him. Miss Lonelyhearts, Day of the Locust, A Cool Million and The Dream Life of Balso Snell. That's it, and all worth reading.

13. Garry Wills
Conservative writer, though slightly less conservative than he was 20 years ago. Read John Wayne's America, The Kennedy Imprisonment, Reagan's America, his work on St. Augustine and a brief book called What Jesus Meant. That I don't always agree with him, either politically or as a Catholic, makes him that much more good and provocative.

Well, there you have it. These names may come up again as the blog unfolds. I hope so, and hope to hear that you've read some of these writers. And even more, I'd love to hear about writers you think I should read. Let me know.

Writers I Recommend: A Baker's Dozen. Part 2

5. Barry Hannah
Mentor, role model, pedal-to-the-metal writer. Best prose style of any American fiction writer I know. He was at his most exhilarating and spectacular in short stories: might I recommend the volume Airships? I guarantee you will be left breathless.

6. James Hillman
Radical Jungian whose way of seeing the world makes radical sense. Dense writing, but thinking that is heavy and true. Take a look at Healing Fiction for starters, but also Revisioning Psychology and Dream and the Underworld. Has helped me understand things in a way that incorporates reason, imagination, and experience.

7. Clarice Lispector
First-rate dying-young Brazilian writer. If you like Angela Carter with less of a polemical edge, you might enjoy Lispector. The Passion According to G.H. is the book; an amazing short story that could serve as an introduction is "The Smallest Woman in the World".

8. Patrick McGinley
Irish mystery writer who is a superb, compelling story-teller. Suspense, yes, and creepy, but also funny as hell. Trick of the Ga Bolga is excellent, as are Foggage and Bogmail.

9. Stephen Mitchell
Yes, the translator. Read his introductions, especially to his translations of Job and Genesis. Also of Rilke and Tao Te Ching. It's what happens when you bring your own poetry and knowledge to bear on the imagination and sensibility of someone else--how brilliant you can be when you step outside yourself.

Writers I Recommend: A Baker's Dozen, Part 1.

I'm not saying you haven't read them, but odds are you haven't. Most certainly aren't best-sellers, and some of them are overlooked by the academy as well (at least as far as I know). Most are fiction writers (since that's my area and all); some I recommend on the virtue of one book, others on a body of work. Here, then, in alphabetical order:

1. Isabel Allende

Two books come to mind: House of the Spirits and Eva Luna. Allende's commingling of Latin American history and magical realism, coupled with a sure sense of story pacing, has earned her a justifiably strong reputation, but I find few people read her since the newness of El Boom has worn off in the Northern Hemisphere. By all means, read her.

2. Frances Burney

Jane Austen devotees may know of Fanny Burney, as there is a long-standing dispute between the readers of both novelists as to who's better. Can't we all just get along? but that being said, if forced to choose, I would set aside Austen (whom I like with reservations) for the more raucous, expansive (and I think funnier) Burney. Evelina is where to start.

3. John Crowley

Best contemporary American writer nobody's heard of. I recommend the short stories, Aegypt, and the masterful Little, Big, which is one of the best novels of the last 30 years. Started as a fantasist, which is why he is only now getting street cred in a highly biased American academia.

4. David Halberstam

Excellent journalist and historian of American culture. His work on Robert Kennedy is worth a read, but it was October 1964 that drew me. One of the most engaging books I have ever read, exploring the two World Series teams and the simultaneous events of the Civil Rights Movement.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Frost and Country Day

In 2003 Rhonda and I were in London, and took a day trip out to Bath to see the Roman ruins. While there, we met a couple from home, and if you've been in Louisville for any amount of time, you know the first question they asked us.

Louisvillians think it's charming, this "where did you go to high school?" business. But for those of you who are here from out of town, here's the scoop: it's the question that people 40 and up ask around here to determine the social class of someone they've just met. Trinity and St. X, Sacred Heart, Eastern and Ballard--those are the correct answers if you want to be listened to at any time during the rest of the encounter. If the President had gone to Fairdale, Shawnee, Valley or Doss, nobody in Louisville would attend the inauguration.

Class prejudice is a nasty American practice, primarily because we're supposed to be this melting pot where this kind of bias doesn't happen. Disturbingly, it crosses ideological lines as well: not just the Republicans are guilty, but Democrats and university leftists. And it's particularly endemic in Louisville.

So out-of-towners (and all of you long-time Louisvillians with a sense of mischief and chaos): next time someone here asks the poisonously charming question, try answering with "middle school at Frost, high school at Country Day". It'll send their heads spinning, and they'll emerge from rotation assuming your family won the lottery when you were 14. Because in Louisville, as in the rest of the USA, class = money = class, and until we move past this obvious situation, we cannot approach the goodness and egalitarianism for which we praise ourselves.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Theoretically Banjaxed

So I've been preparing the fall class on interdisciplinary arts and critical theory, which means I have to dive in to the theory part this week. Each time I do this, my distaste grows. And here are just a few reasons why this is so:

1. Any good reader/listener/observer already "does theory" like any good writer already "does composition". Somewhere along the line, the means to the end should become less your focus than the end itself. If it doesn't, you're in the wrong line of work.
2. Theory encourages cursory approaches to artwork. Why read Mann or attend Rigoletto when you already know that all the artists were doing was contradicting themselves, supporting a particularly vicious brand of capitalism, or finding an inventive way to oppress people? It's a given that culture involves oppression, but for god's sake, Heart of Darkness is not the same thing as a frickin' gulag, despite its racialist elements (and yes, observing these elements, which is what every theorist comes away with having read H. of. D, has become, in my opinion, kind of too obvious to mention, especially at the exclusion of anything else about the work). I've seen some of my best students transformed into jargon-spouting bores like werewolves under a bad moon.
3. We're in bad shape when the only things above suspicion are Marx, tenure, and other theorists. Suspect them, too.
4. Speaking of Marx, academic Marxism is a pitiful thing. 'Fess up. You want to be a Marxist, get out and help our beleaguered unions, goddamnit, instead of pontificating from the safety of the classroom where your audience is grade-obligated not to disagree. The university is a game preserve for any ideas left of center because you've sat on your asses and allowed the country to tumble into its natural state of right-wing extremism. Do something about the larger loony bin by venturing outside of school.

OK, I broke my 250-less rule mid-rant. Next time something amiable.