May Book Log

May 30, 2011

What a weird reading month May was. For one, I was totally drained by the end-of-the-school-year stress (as in lots of student papers), so I didn’t do as much reading as I have been anyway, and for two, I started, but did not finish two books, which is highly unusual. I have some specific summer goals for reading, but I’m going to do summer outlook post in a few days, so I’m holding the new book queue until then.

Before I get to the official log, a word on the two books I didn’t finish. The first was Libra by Don DeLillo. I fully mean to explore DeLillo but this wasn’t the right book for it. The writing was great, but I found the story uninteresting and I hated all the characters. I believe I made it about 150 pages before putting it down, which says something about how good the sentences were. I have been assured by a friend that this is an odd book for DeLillo, and I’ll be picking up White Noise sometime before the end of the year. The second book I didn’t finish was Daughter of Fortune by Isabelle Allende. I had heard mixed reviews on her writing, but I wanted to check her out for myself before making a decision. I didn’t make it five pages. I did not enjoy, to the say the least, anything about the language or sentence construction. The only rub here is that I was, of course, reading a translation, so I have no idea how she sounds in her language. Perhaps I will try her again someday.

Now, the log:

1. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (5/5) – I kept hearing about this book, so I got on the waitlist at the library and just before I got it, it won the Pulitzer, so I had pretty high expectations. It didn’t disappoint. She does the multiple-intertwining narratives as well as anyone I’ve read except Colum McCann. More impressively, she makes a bunch of characters who are, generally, unlikable into an interesting and sympathetic bunch. I can’t think of a bad thing to say about this book. The best part of the writing might be how she manages to experiment with the incorporation of technology without losing anything from the story she’s trying to tell. Great book.

2. A Gesture Life by Chang Rae-Lee (5/5) – Apparently, the Pulitzer committee and I were on the same wave-length this year as Lee’s newest book The Surrendered was a finalist. This was the second of his books I’d read, and I found it just as impressive as the first. It tackles the immigrant experience less directly than Native Speaker, but no less effectively. The real heart of the book, however, is in the way the main character interacts with women, be they the comfort women he treats as a Japanese medical officer in WWII, his adopted Korean daughter, or the woman he takes up with for many years after coming to America. Each relationship is filled with nuance, but they all encounter the same difficulties as the main character, like so many of us, is virtually incapable of realizing his personality has certain flaws. The whole story is rendered wonderfully, and you won’t find realer characters anywhere.

3. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson (4.5/5) – This was a nice palate cleanser after a run of fairly heavy, literary minded books. Bryson’s writing is as funny and fresh as it always is, and it’s great to see him tackle his idyllic 1950s childhood with such honesty. This book was a great deal of fun.

4. Everything in this Country Must by Colum McCann (4/5) – This book was very good. I did not find it to be as masterful as his last two books, which are the others I’ve read, but there is nothing to complain about in this volume. The stories are sad and enchanting. That they lack the greatness of his later work says more about those books than about this one, which is a very worthy read.

5. Versed by Rae Armantrout (4/5) – This is first of what will probably be quite a few books of poetry I’ll be reading this summer to prepared for an advanced writing class I’ll be teaching next year. I’m not as familiar with modern poetry as I should be, and I’m trying to remedy that. This volume tip-toed along the line of comprehensibility, but stayed just on the right side of it for me. The poems are nicely grounded in current events and that helps to keep them accessible, though I wonder if it will allow them to endure. They do all feel lovely as you read them, though.

I am, any day now, going to complete my 4th year of teaching. I wrote before that this felt like my make-or-break year. Could I stand to keep doing this or not? The answer is yes, at least for now. There are a couple of reasons.

For one, it just kind of got easier this year. I’d heard from many sources that things get magically better the 4th year, and I can’t argue with that. I suddenly had almost no issues controlling my classes, and few kids were sent from the room. I’ve taught most of the material enough times now that it’s fine tuned. I know how long it’s going to take and I can adjust if I need to. In short, I feel like I know what I’m doing for the first time.

But it goes beyond that. I have been fortunate in that my bosses have allowed me to start a writing program that, to my knowledge, is the only one of it’s kind in a very large district. This means I get to spend a lot of time teaching and talking about how to write good, creative literature. If you’ve been paying any attention at all, you know this is something I’m passionate about. I can’t describe how nice it is to go to work and get to teach material that I really, really love. Next year, if I’m lucky, I will have my first advanced creative writing class (as in, if enough kids signed up and the schedule works). We should be able to do some really fun stuff in that class.

So that’s where I am, officially, with teaching. Unofficially, I am wiped out, which is why the blog has been pretty low-quality lately. It has been a long year, without the proper amount of sleep and I have recently read more student writing than can possibly be healthy (and I’m not done yet!). I’m sure I’ll be all full of verve again in a few weeks, but right now I just want to rest.

On a side note, I have important things planned for the summer. Most notably, I’m going to send Lonely Human Atoms out into the world soon. I have one more light edit to do, and then it should be ready. I’m excited because I love that book and am proud of it and also because I want to focus on writing something new. It should be good times.

I don’t often write about my musical past on this blog. There was a good chunk of time, probably ten years, when I was a very serious guitar player. I never really made any money at it, and I rarely played out, but I was heavily devoted. I was good, I think. If you gave me time, I could play just about anything, though I preferred improvisation. I had friends I trust tell me they believed I could play lead guitar for a lot of bands. I don’t know if I could have been successful at it, but I suspect not.

Eric Clapton was my touchstone when I first started playing. I discovered him in my dad’s record collection and that was it. He was what made me want to play the guitar.

That said, after the first few months of playing, I stopped really wanting to sound like him. I stopped trying to learn solos note for note and started trying to figure out what I wanted to play. I had an idea in my head of what I wanted the music I made to sound like, but it was foggy and hard to grasp.

And then I heard Doyle Bramhall II. It was one of those serendipitous moments we all have sometimes. I was browsing through record store listening booths, and I gave his second album Jellycream a listen and I thought it was just about the best thing going. And it was new! Most of the music I was listening to at the time was at least twenty-five years old. Though there were some contemporary bands I followed, I mostly felt at sea when it came to trying to play music that felt contemporary.

But here was this album and it was everything I wanted from an artist. The songs had grit to them that could only come from blues, but they were more complicated. There were plenty of guitar solos, of course, but there also weird little bridges and interesting codas on the ends of songs. The tempos and lyrics varied widely, but there was a unified feel and sound that was exactly what I had been looking for.

A few years later, he put out another album called Welcome. I spent a fairly ridiculous sum of money to get an import copy early (its release date was inexplicably several months later in the US than everywhere else). Again, I was blown away. This record was more guitar-driven, but still almost exactly the sound I was going for. That was 2001.

He has not put a record out since.

By most measures, Bramhall has had a successful music career. He put out three albums under his own name and another with a group. He has done an enormous amount of work as a session musician. He has toured with Clapton and Roger Waters and had both sing his praises as a solo artist. But he was still dropped by his label. This has nothing to do with talent and everything to do with the industry.

I do not know if I could have had any measure of success as a musician. I suspect if I had been willing to subsume myself, if I had been willing to go into a band or studio and play what I was told, I could have at least scratched a living out. I do not think I ever could have made it on my own. There is a certain feel that I just don’t think I have, at least as a singer and songwriter. And even if it had not been for that ill-feeling, it probably wouldn’t have worked. No one was buying what I was selling.

A sense of that is, I think, what kept me from ever going all in with music the way I have with writing, but without music, and without Doyle Bramhall, I don’t know if I would ever have gotten where I am. This isn’t to say that I live some kind of ridiculously fabulous life. I simply mean that these things went a good ways toward nudging me onto my current life path.

I took a poetry class to help with my songwriting. The poetry teacher was awful (a graduate student who should never have been teaching), and I have never been much of a poet, but the class was an absurdly easy credit and I was already an English teacher, so the next semester I convinced my friend Josh to take a fiction writing class with me.

And I started writing fiction and I thought, this isn’t so bad really. I can kind of do this, and I like it. I was a sophomore in college. I had never written a word of fiction beyond the stray assignments teachers give you in school, but there I was, a late bloomer. Of course, those first things were pretty awful, but my teacher (another graduate student) seemed to think I was not miserable, and so I took another class and met the teacher I still keep in vague touch with today and who, I presume, continues to think I am not useless.

Certainly, this all took a while. In a truthful sense, it is not finished taking its while and it might never (which is probably how it’s supposed to go). In any case, I have never felt like I was pretending when I write a story in the way I always felt I was pretending with music. I would not be embarrassed to have writers I respect read my best stories in the way I would be embarrassed to have, say, Richard Thompson, listen to my songs. I have found writers with a style similar to mine, but I did not need them to define what I was trying to do the way I did with Bramhall and music.

Certainly, I am unsuccessful in the conventional sense, and mostly unpublished, but there is a measure of success in feeling comfortable with what you are trying to do. I never wonder if it is worth it to keep plowing away at writing. Soon, Lonely Human Atoms will be read and I will have to hope that I find the right reader at the right publishing house or agency, though I’ll keep writing either way.

I have an article up here.

Beyond the Pale

May 4, 2011

If you pay attention to the news you are, I hope, aware of this. Basically, a Texas cheerleader was raped by a star athlete (I suppose, I should say “allegedly,” but he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge), and then refused to cheer for him. Consequently, she was kicked off the cheerleading squad. She sued and lost (the court said she was a “mouthpiece” for the school) and is now being forced to pay $45,000 for bringing a frivolous lawsuit. This makes my head want to explode, so I am going to take a minute to break down everything that is fucked up about this situation.

1. Cheerleaders are the mouthpieces of the school? Really? Really? I mean, yeah, if you’re a cheerleader you cheer. I get that, it’s part of the program, but you’re not allowed to take exception to some things? I don’t see how it is ever reasonable to expect someone to follow orders that are as extremely unreasonable as these.

2. This sets one hell of a bad precedent. Hey kids! You have free speech! Except, if you try to sue when that right is threatened, it might cost you a whole lot of money if you lose the court case. Which actually makes it seem like costly speech, doesn’t it?

3. He was still on the freaking team!!! This is the biggest one. I mean, what was this school district thinking? He pleaded guilty to assaulting her. Even if you want to pretend the rape didn’t happen, that’s still awful. How is this guy not kicked off the team? Don’t basically all schools have conduct clauses for students who want to participate? And if they don’t shouldn’t they? Would it really be the worst thing ever to say, “no one convicted of a violent crime can play for us.”

Oh wait, I forgot. This is sports. High School Sports. What could possibly be more important. Thousands of people come out for some of those contests so they can pin their hopes and dreams on children playing a game. I like sports, but shit, being a good athlete does not mean you don’t still have to be a good person. I don’t care how important high school sports seem in Texas. They aren’t important. Not really. I like sports, but one of the best things about sports is that they are frivolous. That’s kind of the whole point. If we have gotten to the point where high school – HIGH-FREAKING-SCHOOL – sports are so important that we will cheer someone no matter how bad a human being he may be – that we will step on the rights of others so that he can play, then we have some serious, fucking issues as a society.

The worst part is – and here I’m going totally into conjecture – I will bet you money that if the situation was reversed and the cheerleader had done something to the star athlete and he didn’t want her on the sidelines when he played, she would have been gone. In the blink of an eye. And they would have talked about how he had rights and she had done this and he shouldn’t be punished for it. Tell me I’m wrong.

I know this is America, and I know that, right now we are having a renaissance of hatred for women. I know that we really seem to value the rich and the powerful over the poor and the weak (Christian nation that we are), but come on? Do we have to fine the poor woman? Why? She already lost her appeal. Why do we have to pile on. (Aside: I’m not trying to call the woman poor or weak, I’m just making the point again that charging people for free speech and valuing athletes the way we do is problematic.)

Right now, I hope two things: 1. I hope someone starts a fund to pay for that fine for her because, frankly, she’s already gone through more than any person deserves. 2. I hope this fund is overwhelmed with donations such that her college (she is reportedly in college now) can be paid for. That to me, would be the best “up yours” to the assholes who made this kind of injustice possible. What a ridiculous world.

All I Have to Say

May 2, 2011

Certainly, the world is better without Osama bin Laden. However, upon hearing of some celebrations, I am reminded of verse 31 from the Tao Te Ching:

Weapons are the tools of violence;
all decent men detest them.

Weapons are the tools of fear;
a decent man will avoid them
except in the direst necessity
and, if compelled, will use them
only with the utmost restraint.
Peace is his highest value.
If the peace has been shattered,
how can he be content?
His enemies are not demons,
but human beings like himself.
He doesn’t wish them personal harm.
Nor does he rejoice in victory.
How could he rejoice in victory
and delight in the slaughter of men?

He enters a battle gravely,
with sorrow and with great compassion,
as if he were attending a funeral.