I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library. Jorge Luis Borges

Two movies I will definitely be seeing

Well, what do you know? Tom Hanks will be playing lead role in a film adaptation of Dave Eggers’ A Hologram for the KingHologram is a fantastic book, and I can’t wait to see the film! The very talented Mr. Eggers has also landed a film version of his novel You Shall Know Our Velocity, the script for which was written by none other than Wells Tower! I know, right?!


Two collections

I picked up Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned and Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove recently and tore through them both.

Everything Ravaged is everything I love about a short story collection. Every story was strong — in prose, in characterization, and in story. Tower is a remarkable writer. Most of his stories are about male protagonists, but even the teenage girl who headlines the story ‘Wild America’ is pitch perfect. Hell, I can’t even write a teenage girl as well as he does.  Slate and the NY Times both have highly complimentary reviews of the book. The Daily Beasts review claims these are short stories for men, but Bookslut offers some more nuanced insight. I love Edmund White’s words in the Times review:

Every one of the stories in “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” is polished and distinctive. Though he’s intrigued by the painful experiences of men much older than he is, Tower can write with equal power about young women and boys; about hell-­raising, skull-bashing ancient Vikings and an observant housebound old man of the 21st century, even about a cheerful, insouciant pedophile. His range is wide and his language impeccable, never strained or fussy. His grasp of human psychology is fresh and un-Freudianizing.

He also compares Tower to Lorrie Moore, which is one I did not think of when I was reading but I see it clearly now. Moore is one of my favorite writers of all time, so that about sums up my feelings on Wells Tower. (Plus, come on, his name is Wells Tower. That’s a freaking kick ass name.)

I think one of the things I liked most about the stories was their range. To go from “Door in Your Eye” (wherein “an old man is laid up in his daughter’s house without much to do. He passes the time painting watercolors of the weather into his diary, dreaming of his youth, and watching johns go in and out of a prostitute’s shabby house across the street”) to “On the Show” (“perhaps the most pitiless story of the collection, … structured around the search for a child molester at a traveling carnival. What is terrifying is … that at one point or another every single man in the story appears guilty. We watch as first one character, and then another, wanders away at a suspicious moment, or admires a striking young boy. They are not the culprit, we learn, but they are not untouched by the impulses that move him, and there are dark places in all our hearts.) to the title story (“a George Saunders-esque tale of marauding Vikings, several of whom, cutely, have tired of rape and plunder”) is to watch a master at work. Tower is a virtuoso of the form, which, coincidentally enough, is from the Latin virtus, meaning virtue, excellence, skill, or manliness.

Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove was a different story for me. It’s very good as a whole, but the individual stories seemed a bit uneven. Danny Nowell’s review in The Oxford American describes her prose as “sturdy,” which is about as lovely a compliment to one’s writing as it would be about one’s girlish figure. Some of my favorite stories in the collection, like “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” reminded me of Kelly Link’s work in Stranger Things Happen, while others like “Reeling for the Empire” put me in mind of Haruki Murakami, whom I’ve never been able to love. “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” was a standout for me because it was so very different from everything else. I was grateful that Nowell shared my feelings on some of the frustrating endings to her stories, which “struggled to strike the balance between satisfying and unexpected resolutions.” But then, my own writing is the same way.

I’m still interested in reading more of Russell’s work, but I think I’d like to try her novel Swamplandia!, which was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, though no award was given out that year at all (dumb). And if Tower writes another book, well, go ahead and put me on the waiting list now.

Mary McCarthy’s ‘The Group’

I just this morning finished Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group, and while searching online for some commentary about what I consider to be a rather strangely abrupt ending (particularly for so long a novel), I came across the most bizarre book review I’ve ever read. It appeared in a 1963 issue of The New York Review of Books, written by Norman Mailer. Mailer, who is not a fan of what he calls the “lady-book,” picks up on a few issues with the story that bothered me as well, such as that Elinor Eastlake, arguably the most interesting character in the novel, disappears right after the opening scene and does not return until the end of the novel. Kay Petersen, the central figure around whom the novel turns, was terrifically boring to me–Mailer calls her “too horsey, and all-but-dyke.” And of course, at the outset, I had a terrible time telling the eight girls apart from one another. As Mailer puts it:

Her characters will come from one class and make no heroic journeys to other classes, they will not look to participate in the center of the history which is being made, and they will be the victim of no outsize passion. Nor will they be made sufficiently eccentric to separate clearly from one another. … These pissout characters with their cultivated banalities, their lack of variety or ambition, perversion, simple greed or depth of feeling, their indifference to the bedrock of a collective novel.

Mailer’s verdict is that the book suffers from lack of reach. He pronounces:

Mary’s vice is her terror of being ridiculous, and so she is in danger of ending up absurd, an old-maid collector of Manx cats, no tails and six toes, an anomaly of God. It even invades her vision. One called her cockeyed for a cause. There is an atrocious anachronism in the book. Her characters while engaged in the activities of the thirties have a consciousness whose style derives directly from the fifties. One has to keep reminding oneself that these events did not take place ten years ago, but thirty years ago, and this is unforgivable. It is like wrapping a tuning fork in velvet. Her little book so full of promise and quiver ends up soggy and damp. What rings true does not please the ear, what pleases is not quite true. So the book seems stuffed with cotton and catalogues as Podhoretz was quick to accuse.

While mildly amusing and somewhat confusing to read, Mailer’s review falls short of the mark for me. As Elizabeth Day points out in her Guardian review, “It was the women’s submissiveness that most enraged Norman Mailer, who claimed that McCarthy’s novel was fatally diminished by the fact that none of her characters has “the power or dedication to wish to force events”, while conspicuously missing the point that it was precisely this enforced passivity that McCarthy wished to highlight.” Day also notes that reviews like Mailer’s and angry letters from readers throughout the years following the publication of The Group were incredibly hurtful to McCarthy, who admitted in a 1989 interview that The Group had ruined her life. Day says, “Although The Group brought her a vastly larger audience, its publication resulted in McCarthy being rejected by both the Vassar classmates whose social poise she envied and the highbrow artistic friends whose intellect she admired.”

But the influence of The Group cannot be denied. Apparently, Candace Bushnell wrote Sex and the City as a modern-day version of The Group. Many other female writers have been inspired by McCarthy’s fearlessness in tackling sexuality, contraceptives, breastfeeding, and other women’s issues. McCarthy said herself in a 1961 interview in The Paris Review that the novel was about “the history of the loss of faith in progress [in the female sphere].” But then, Ginia Bellafonte asks, in a New York Times book club review, “Is McCarthy settled herself on what progress would really look like? I don’t know.”

As an aside, I was particularly interested in McCarthy’s characterization in that interview on what makes a “woman writer.” She says,

I mean, there’s a certain kind of woman writer who’s a capital W, capital W. Virginia Woolf certainly was one, and Katherine Mansfield was one, and Elizabeth Bowen is one. Katherine Anne Porter? Don’t think she really is—I mean, her writing is certainly very feminine, but I would say that there wasn’t this “WW” business in Katherine Anne Porter. Who else? There’s Eudora Welty, who’s certainly not a “Woman Writer.” Though she’s become one lately. … I think they become interested in décor. You notice the change in Elizabeth Bowen. Her early work is much more masculine. Her later work has much more drapery in it. Who else? Jane Austen was never a “woman writer,” I don’t think. The cult of Jane Austen pretends that she was, but I don’t think she was. George Eliotcertainly wasn’t, and George Eliot is the kind of woman writer I admire. I was going to write a piece at some point about this called “Sense and Sensibility,” dividing women writers into these two. I am for the ones who represent sense, and so was Jane Austen.

But getting back to The Group, McCarthy realizes a problem with it during the interview itself, one which we’ve already discussed here. She says, “But maybe that’s really part of the trouble I’m having with my novel [The Group]! These girls are all essentially comic figures, and it’s awfully hard to make anything happen to them. Maybe this is really the trouble!” I wonder what her feelings were on the issue after the novel was published, if she was satisfied with the way it turned out or if she felt it still had flaws in that area.

One point of Mailer’s that I agree with is his observation that The Group is a great sociological work. I really enjoyed reading about different aspects of life in society and opinions on female hysteria, breastfeeding, and motherhood back in the day. Some of it made me want to throw the book against the wall! Like this bit, about Priss, who has only just given birth to her son: “On her lips, which were dry, was a new shade of lipstick, by Tussy; her doctor had ordered her to put on lipstick and powder right in the middle of labor; he and Sloan [her husband] both thought it was important for a maternity patient to keep herself up the mark. … She would have been more comfortable in the short cotton hospital nightshirt that tied in the back, but the floor nurses every morning made her struggle into a satin-and-lace ‘nightie’ from her trousseau. Doctor’s orders, they said.” And of course, everyone who comes to visit her in the hospital smokes and drinks cocktails in the room!

Overall, once I got a better handle on the differences among the girls, I very much enjoyed reading the novel. I found I didn’t particularly like any of the characters, except Polly and Jim, though their story doesn’t come until well into the book. I thought I would have liked Lakey, but as I mentioned earlier, we don’t really get to know her at all. The rest of the girls were really just awful. Mostly, I’m just overcome with gratefulness that “the feminine sphere” has progressed light-years from where we see it in this novel! That sense of history, of knowing how far we’ve come–necessary though painful at times–was worth the read to me.


The World Cup of Literature

Three Percent is putting on a World Cup of Literature! It’ll be a 32-book knock-out tournament that will run at the same time as the actual World Cup. They’re looking for book recommendations and judges, so head on over and check it out. Should make for a good time.

Two books

I’ve recently taken a little job at my church, and that, combined with two boys under the age of five and the arduous task of making another human being, has left me with quite a bit less free time on my hands. To get you up to speed, I’m going to give you two books at a time, with a thought on each book, and one striking line from each (that’s a freebie). Don’t say I never gave ya nothin.

Two books I am currently reading:

1. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
I’m not very far into the book yet, but Greene’s prose strikes me as very strong and, for lack of a      better term, masculine; it also seems to me to be written in much the same way as a person really thinks, not stream of consciousness so much as just very real. The narrator’s hatred is so heavy, I have to put the book down every so often and look around.

“It occurred to me with amazement that for ten minutes I had not thought of Sarah or of my jealousy; I had become nearly human enough to think of another person’s trouble.”

2. The Explicit Gospel by Matt Chandler and Jared Wilson
I don’t read that many Christian books because I believe many of them are garbage. This one is not. It is engaging and enlightening and funny, even. I haven’t read anything in this book that I haven’t technically heard before, but it’s presented in such a fresh and new way that I’m seeing everything with new eyes.

“You cannot scare people into loving God. You just can’t do it. You can scare them into moral acts of goodness. But that’s not salvation. That’s not even Christian.”

Two books I have recently loved:

1. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. You should read it.

“The world was such an incredibly lonely place, and to lie down beside him, skin to skin, seemed the only cure.”

2. Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton
This book, about South Africa during apartheid, is as beautiful as a poem, or a prayer. It is filled with love. You should read it also.

“The child coughs badly, her brow is hotter than fire. Quietly my child, your mother is by you. Outside there is laughter and jesting, digging and hammer, and calling in languages that I do not know. Quietly my child, there is a lovely valley where you were born. The water sings over the stones, and the wind cools you. The cattle come down to the river, they stand there under the trees. Quietly my child, oh God make her quiet. God have mercy upon us. Christ have mercy upon us. White man, have mercy upon us.”

Two books by which I have recently been disappointed:

1. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
An interesting enough read, and certainly laboriously researched, but for me it just hits slightly wide of the mark. It left me feeling strangely unaffected.

“I will pour out everything inside me so you may leave this table satisfied and fortified. Blessings on your eyes. Blessings on your children. Blessings on the ground beneath you. My heart is a ladle of sweet water, brimming over.”

2. Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
The ending! The atrocious ending! Not to mention that I find even my own teenage diaries whingey and annoying.

“God, I sound like a goddamn Establishmentarian, and I haven’t even got a pill to tie the taste out of my mouth or drive the bull shit thoughts away.”

Two books I’m excited to read:

1. Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
2. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower

Happy springtime

O sweet spontaneous

by e.e. cummings


O sweet spontaneous
earth how often have

               fingers of
prurient philosophers pinched

, has the naughty thumb
of science prodded

         beauty                  how
often have religions taken
thee upon their scraggy knees
squeezing and

buffeting thee that thou mightest conceive

to the incomparable
couch of death thy

              thou answerest

them only with


Some poems for you by way of apology for my long absence

All poems found on the always surprising failbetter.com.

Raising Children is Boring

by Justin Marks

Raising children is boring.
Sublimely so.

I walk in the door and my mind

Things go well, then don’t.
But then, increasingly.

There is never not a narrative.

Discovering new ways to die
is always upsetting.

Little is lonelier
than being married.     Except not.

Whatever. Whoever
you are.

Amputations          all around.

Blue Ridge

by Jennifer Key

The house holds no more words.
Every one from a to zygote,
even the World Book Encyclopedias
(a graduation gift circa ’62),
long since carted to Carolina
for my parents’ grand retirement
that will not come to pass.
On the porch my father lies flushed
and dreaming back to boyhood
or war, when soldiers crushed heroin
with their hands and smoked it.
He refused, but now wears a patch
more potent than opium behind one ear.

Beyond the porch screens, bug-picked
and spider-laced, the hills of Virginia
march into a future we can’t see,
just as birdsong insists on daylight
long after it’s gone. The lilies father planted
to flower the season of my wedding
open their awful mouths—
the first just yesterday and by today
two turned trumpet. There is no silencing
their dreadful fanfare. Why must they persist
when each pink tongue only says the same thing?
The more that open, the sooner he’ll be gone.


If We’d Cried, I Would Have Mentioned It

by Karen Skolfield

I’ve realized I don’t keep much
of my mom around. An ornate bottle,
a serving platter, one picture
on the side of the fridge.
We look a lot alike. Everyone said so 
at the funeral, which is a strange
time to say that: You look so much
like your mother, who is now dead.
We were the same height for a long time,
and then she shrank, and shrank
some more, and I knew she was leaving.
Short fingers. Farsighted. I’m graying
the same way she did. She was in the ground
by the time we arrived in Tennessee.
On a hillside where it looked like no one
had ever been. Even the new dirt looked
like old dirt. Cold, but only Tennessee cold.
I was six months pregnant, and I wore
a maternity vest designed just for funerals
when you are six months pregnant.
Dark on dark, a pocket for what grows inside.
A little zipper that gave my hands
something to do. My brothers said
I looked nice pregnant, and I believed them.
We milled around the dry December grass,
churning the spent seed heads, and talked
about mom as if she still might show up
with a baked ham, some warm bread.
We were a family raised to believe
in things unseen. Just the one tombstone.
Pink granite. Or maybe it’s called red granite,
but it looked pink, and we talked about it
for a long time, the area famous for its quarry.
Hearts and her name, precisely carved flowers.
What I wanted to tell my siblings was that
the wrong parent died. I thought this over
and over, and found some strange comfort there.
Maybe they thought the same thing.
My oldest brother’s girlfriend said
“Isn’t it amazing what they can do with lasers,”
and I told her about my surgery.
No more glasses. Until then,
I’d let everyone wonder what miracle,
what divine hand, had touched my eyes.


Turning Down the Ars Poetica, Heating Up the Leftovers

by Jim Daniels

The heart abused by the staged endings
of professional wrestling and greeting cards.

The line pumping blood replaced
by fashionable stray threads leading to

the complete fraying of, spraying of, the blind horse’s
nod and wink. In other words, lost in the snowy forest

among the skeleton trees, irony serves little purpose.
I just won an award for obscure clarity—stop the presses

and replace them with long underwear drying on the line,
almost sideways in March wind.


Somewhere, a man arrives home from work
in evening darkness, car door etching itself

on the street’s silence, Inside, leftovers on the stove,
a woman in her robe prepares his plate.

Children asleep, radio tuned to talk
on health and home improvements and religion

though it’s just soft static now as she sits down
to watch him eat, as he sits down to hear

what he missed, being at work and all.
I can’t tell you whether they even hug or kiss

before collapsing into bed together,
for I am already in dream’s tender arms.

And if this violates point of view
or logic, she’ll get you a plate

and explain it all to you,
my mother.

A poem by Lisa Ampleman

Mouth: To Say


To say a word, we put it in our mouths.
It may roll between the teeth
or hum on the palate. Love, after all, starts
on tongue against teeth and ends on lips.
To communicate once meant to take communion.
I take the wafer into my mouth:
speech. Silence as it melts on my tongue.
Your speaking hums in your chest
when my ear is to it. There’s a wasp nest
under my porch. They fly home at dusk,
but you know how to suss them out.
And in my kitchen, plaster cracks on
one discolored wall. Is it water damage?
Is the house settling? You put your hand
on my wall, say It doesn’t look like water
(water, which begins on pursed lips).
The cracked pipe in the wall seals up.
The glass of water we share is cold.
You kiss my mouth, which tastes like your mouth.

Eudora Welty’s “Delta Wedding”

So the story goes that Eudora Welty was so good at writing short stories that people naturally began to harass her about writing a novel. As Charles Poore pointed out in his 1946 New York Times review, “This is a venerable literary custom which, if transferred to painting, would harass good easel- artists with demands that they go in for wall-wide murals; if transferred to sports, would urge champion hundred-yard runners to concentrate on the mile or the marathon.” But Welty pulled it off because Delta Wedding is very successful as a novel, and really nothing at all like many of her short stories that I’ve read (one exception being “A Memory,” which has some of the deep interior monologue that you see in the novel.).

The occasion of the novel is the wedding of Dabney Fairchild to Troy Flavin, the overseer (a somewhat scandalous affair, one gathers, along with a few other marriages in the family that were considered “beneath them”). It opens with Laura McRaven, a cousin of the Fairchild clan, whose mother died earlier that year, coming in on the train for the wedding. I love the scenes that are told from Laura’s POV; she’s such a charming little wallflower. We read at the end of the opening paragraph: “Of these facts the one most persistent in Laura’s mind was the most intimate one: that her age was nine.”

The world that keeps coming to mind when I was reading Delta Wedding was ethereal. Some of her descriptions, especially of George, were rather abstract, and I found myself rereading many passages to understand what she was saying. For example:

George was the one person she knew in the world who did not have it in him to make of any act a facile thing or to make a travesty out of human beings–even, in spite of temptation at a time like this moment, of himself as one human being. (How the Fairchilds did talk on about their amazing shortcomings, with an irony that she could not follow at all, and never rested in perfecting caricatures, little soulless images of themselves and each other that could not be surprised or hurt or changed! That way Battle, when they were first married, had told her something like this.) Only George left the world she knew as pure–in spite of his fierce energies, even heresies–as he found it; still real, still bad, still fleeting and mysterious and hopelessly alluring to her.

My favorite parts by far were regarding the children. There was a small, busy army of them running throughout the pages, and they are all so distinct and true to life. They say and do the most outrageous things. All of the adults, too (and there are many of them), are clearly characterized. That, to me, is part of her genius in this novel. She keeps so many plates spinning at once. Poore says, “For the light comes obliquely in Miss Welty’s writing, but it comes from every direction, so that in the end everything has been illuminated and you know the Fairchild’s world inside and out.” Tom Conoboy suggests that it is the family unit as a whole that functions as the principle character of the novel, a premise I find interesting. The novel begins and ends with Laura, but it hardly seems to be her story. Or rather, it’s her story along with a lot of other stories all woven together. George is certainly a centerpiece, but he’s too much of a mirror upon which other family members project their own feelings. So I think Conoboy’s assertion is a good one. This is not a novel about an individual’s journey, and so the narrative arc is more like a seismogram. It is this quality which has likely put off some readers, but I think it’s what gives the novel it’s particular heft and resonance, because it’s very true to life. No one lives in a vacuum. We are all a part of a community, and Delta Wedding shows a particular community in beautiful, intense detail.

The sound-sex of it

Not sure I’m completely on board with Stephen Fry, but he makes some very reasonable arguments. And I could listen to his voice all day.