Monday, August 28, 2006

slowing down?; there is a balm in Gilead

So I wrote in my last entry that I was trying to slow down, do less, etc.

That Very Night . . .

As I lay in my bed, in the dark, I started thinking about the one-man show that keeps getting pushed back. I want to get back to work on that and the opening section of it is envisioned to be vocalizations and movements in response to breath.

So, I start vocalizing.

It doesn't take long before my live-in feline companion, Cunningham the Boycatt, jumps up on the bed and comes to check out my face, curious and perhaps a little disturbed by all those odd sounds coming from it.

I give him a pat on the head and tell him, "It's okay, Boycatt, I'm just rehearsing."

In bed, of course.

After laughing for a bit, I rolled over and tried to slow down my mind a bit so I could sleep.


Marilynne Robinson's Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize last year and it sold a lot of books and seemed to be a popular choice for a good many book clubs. All of which triggered my knee-jerk inner snob. If it's that popular, how good can it be?

And yet I was curious because it seemed to be a book of religious themes, indeed about a Christian minister, and that it won the reasonably secular Pulitzer told me something was up with it.

Briefly, the book is a first person narrative from an aging 70-something preacher who re-married late in life and has a kindergarten-ish aged son. He's also recently been diagnosed with some heart condition that will certainly take his life before too very long. So the conceit of the narrative is that it's a long letter to the adult son he won't see grow up.

And it's fairly brilliant.

Quietly brilliant, but brilliant all the same.

That's the thing about this book, really, and it was named for me by a co-worker who also read it. It's a quiet book. The narrative voice is strong and compelling and even if it started out a bit slow (I remember looking to see the book had 247 pages and thinking, "200 more pages of this?"), it quietly grabs you can asks you to keep reading.

Because in this small, midwestern town, this Congregationalist preacher has been the one people told their scandals to, told him their secrets and fears. Oh, even the scandals are really rather quiet by Hollywood standards, but the big one, the one that bothers the preacher the most, is a scandal that was really testing the times they were living in. (The time of the book is the 1950s, if I understood and remember the references correctly.) The scandal involves the son of a colleague, named after the narrator when it looked like the narrator would have no heirs. This name, passed down to the next generation not via blood but through the bonds of friendship become more burden than blessing. That child becomes the one that gives preacher's kids a bad name. Except he's not a bad kid. He's just too perceptive for his own good, too much of a free thinker to take anything that is as the way it has to be.

And so I'll leave you with that mystery because Robinson unfolds it so beautifully. Just when you've accepted that the narrator is a saint without measure, this son, now a fully grown man, maybe 40-ish, returns to the town and stirs up old feelings and old resentments and finally this old man, writing to his adult son decades in advance, finally the preacher confesses his own regrets, his own shortcomings, his own questions about how he's spent his life.

There were moments when I thought, would someone write this to his child, especially when the child is truly still a child, even if the intent is that the child read it as a grown man? But then I realized that this part of the magic of what Robinson accomplishes here. What starts out as a letter to tell a young man all the things a father should tell a young man, it slips into an accounting, as in giving an account, of his life. He starts by giving a lesson in family history, how his father and grandfather (both preachers) would argue and the hurts nursed between them, and then almost unexpectedly slips into the history and hurts he has nursed and has no way of changing. It starts out as a letter of encouragement and instruction and becomes a journal of confession.

The other bit of magic that Robinson created is that I never once doubted that the person writing the letter was an old man. Seems silly to say that because of course I bought a book by Marilynne Robinson and I knew she composed the words on the page. And yet, after I finished reading it and thought on it, I realized I completely believed the persona Robinson took on to write this book. It seems to me she knows how old preachers think. As the narrator himself might say, it's a remarkable thing.

In short, read this book. Even if it is a religious setting and a religious mind narrating the story, it's not about religion or even religious things. It's about humanity in all it's strength and frailty.

Which, now that I write that, pretty much requires religious language to illuminate it.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Slowing down; recent books by my bed

You'd think that releasing Able to... and getting past the party, things would slow down.

Not really.

I've been busy with finding places to do readings and signings and I feel pretty good about that. I have at least one event per month for the rest of the year. Well, through December. Nothing in December yet.

I say "yet" like I'm looking for something. If it comes knocking on my door, I'll do it, but I think I'm not looking for it. For one thing, the dance theater piece I'm directing goes up in December and I might want to carve out some time for that, eh?

But in general, I need to slow down. This past week was a good start. I some vacation days from the day job, drove down the coast to see friends (although that wasn't a work-free jaunt--I have a signing at the Corpus Christi Barnes & Noble for October [Friday] the 13th), and I'm trying to get back into the the swing of things with a little more balance than I've experienced recently. There's still plenty to do, no mistake about it. But I think I slow down just a tad from the crazed pace I had up to and slightly after the release party.

Besides, I'm not writing. And when I'm not writing, I get a little nuts. So promotional things for Able to... can take a breather for a month or two while I let out some of the people in my brain onto paper.

And by "breather," I mean I have only one other place I'd like to get into before the end of the year.

Insert rolling eyes here.


It's been a while since I talked about what I'm reading. So I turn to the pile beside my bed to see what I've made it through recently. Note that I'm a slow reader. Or a careful reader? Mostly, a tired reader. The time I've had for reading lately is just before bed and so it's just a few pages a night before I have to give up and turn out the lights.

(I'm currently trying to read Don Quixote before bed. I'm averaging about 10 pages a night for a 1,000 page book. You do the math, I would just get overwhelmed.)

About the time I last wrote about books (other than my own), I picked up a slim novel called The All of It by Jeannette Haien. It's a tale that is set in Ireland and it's a curious thing. After the first few pages, I wasn't too enthralled. I kept reading, however, because I'd bought the thing and it was so short. And it's one of those books that sort of creeps up on you. Now, I don't find the prose particularly artful, neither do I find anything particularly surprising in the plot. Oh, there were a couple of turns I hadn't expected, but I'd guessed some of it.

And yet, once I got going, Haien had me. The story has a mystery--a deathbed confession to the local priest starts to unravel a life of layered lies. Had it all been more sensational (and it could easily have gone that way), this would be a summer beach read. Haien's art, then, is in the quiet subtlety and human voices of the characters.

It also strikes me as the sort of mystery that could only have taken place before the internet age, indeed, the main mystery and lie is laid in an age before there were much of any instant communications. It struck me that the ruse that is played out over a lifetime would require it's setting--a time of few background checks, a time of taking things at face value, a time of sketchy record keeping.

Did I like the book? As I write about it, I admit a sort of lukewarm feeling about it. And yet, I was drawn in, I found one or two surprises. I found humanity in the characters. Given so much of what passes for writing these days, I think that's enough to say the reading was time well spent.

I was also going to write about Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, but I think this entry is long enough. Part of my slowing down is taking more time for this blog, so come back in a couple of days and hopefully I'll have passed judgment on last year's Pulitzer Prize winner . . .

Monday, August 14, 2006

Midnight blogging; book titles; "The Changing Light" by Vincent Craig Wright

It's actually well past midnight now. The little clock in the lower right hand corner says 1:15. I got off from the "day job" at midnight. And while I should be in bed--I'm due back at the day job in 10 hours--I have that "not quite wound down" feeling.

So I blog.

And it's way overdue.
I've noticed a couple of book titles that seemed silly or sent my mind down a silly path. So I share the silliness.

The first one is self-explanatory, no path to follow. It was something like: Fix It Quick Slow Cooker Recipes.

The other one, a home decorating book, was called something like: How to Get that Country Look. Now, as a former farmboy (and it's true I've lost most of my "country look," although it wasn't entirely intentional), I've always been fascinated by those darling "country kitchen" sort of decorations you see in some catalogs. My mother's kitchen looked nothing like any of those pictures and so I've come to think of all that gingham and decorated Mason jar nonsense as a city person's idea of what a country kitchen might look like. For the record, we didn't decorate Mason jars on our farm--we used them to can peaches, tomatoes, pickles, green beans, grape juice . . . I'm sure a few other things. But we didn't decorate them. I can't imagine it ever occurring to us to do so. But that's a bit beside the point, too. How to Get that Country Look? You get up very early in the morning, go take care of livestock (pigs, cows, chickens, in our case), then have breakfast and then spend a long day doing really hard work. Fixing fence. Hauling hay. Loading grain to take to the mill to be ground into cow or pig feed. Working the cattle (which may mean vaccinating them or separating calves from cows for weaning or loading them up for the auction barn or slaughter house). I've probably forgotten more about how to get that country look than the authors of that interior design book every knew. But then I doubt they were thinking of farmer tans and smelly boots out by the back door . . .

FINALLY, I get around to posting some thoughts on Vincent Craig Wright's story, "The Changing Light." This story is the final one in Able to... for a reason. Let me see if I can put into words.

Like Becky Haigler's stories, I received "The Changing Light" very early in the game, and like Becky's stories, I loved it immediately and knew I wanted it. Unlike Becky's flower-speaking girl, Craig's resurrecting protagonist didn't surprise me so much as Craig's language did. He has a way of taking a fairly ordinary phrase and reinventing it and then using the same construction over and over, turning it over and inside out, making it mean something different while retaining the echo of the first use. There's also a rhythm to the language he uses, which is one of those really hard-to-define things--it's possibly due to his other career as a musician and songwriter or maybe it's why he's a musician and songwriter. It's stream of consciousness in a way that isn't immediately noticeable. The opening scene, for example, is a car wreck. This accident is played out in super-slow motion with all the crazy thoughts that go through a person's mind in 4 seconds or less. This car wreck goes on for 4 or 5 pages and it is full of story and backstory and foreshadowing and all these tricks that I saw only on the second reading. I was surprised to notice after the first reading how many words he used to get us through this car wreck. It never felt wordy, never felt over-wrought. It is, in fact, beautiful.

But this is a collection of well-written stories (if I do say so myself--I mean, why would I have published them otherwise?). This story gets the final slot for another reason (and I come from the school of thought that the first and last story of a collection holds very powerful positions). If, as I opine in the book's introduction, this is a collection of "adult power fantasies" (in contrast to the adolescent power fantasies of super-hero comics), then it seems to me that there are few powers that might resonate so strongly as the desire to come back to life. Of course, we have in this collection a woman who resurrects the dead, which is maybe a stronger desire, but in this story, the protagonist does it not just to exercise power, but to save someone grief. He seems not entirely comfortable with his power, but he uses it because he wants to save a loved one grief. There's something very lovely about that to me, something slightly self-sacrificing in it. To bring someone else back to life could be selfish--and certainly not dying permantly could be also. But that's not how it's played here.

Ah, you need to read this story. You need to read this collection.

Oh, there is one more reason this story is the final one in the collection. It's the final line. I won't quote it here because I don't want to ruin it out of context. I also don't want to build it up to something more than it is. It's a quiet ending and a lovely way to end a book. There's something existential in it's most positive sense, it seems to me. After all the flowers spoken and realities altered, the subtle scents smelled and the emotions manipulated, after all the music and miracles and talking frogs--Craig gave me a line that summed it all up for me.

Even after you read it, you may not get what I mean by that. So maybe the story is the final one in the collection for completely idiosyncratic reasons. I hope not, but there it is.

I know I'm here to sell this book, Able to..., and I know there's supposed to be some salesman hyperbole involved with that. But I'm also a terrible salesman and move given to understatement than bombast. This is a book of stories I'm very pleased to present to the world. If you haven't given it a try yet, I hope you will.


So finally, a month after the release party, I get through the book, story by story.

I'll get back to my more rambly thoughts on things I'm reading and other art I'm seeing. There's quite a bit going on with the promotion of this book and getting busy with putting together the next book (a collection of short plays by Christopher Ellis, Chicago playwright). Other things in the pot I'm stirring.

And now that it's after 2am, I think it's time I stopped stirring. More soon.