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My New York Times Magazine columnlet this week is about Chris Offutt’s attempts to bake a “Bible Cake” recipe (first published in a Kentucky P.T.A. cookbook in 1967) without cursing.
Just about every time I mention a piece of writing in one of these tiny columns, it’s because I hope everyone who sees it will seek the thing out and read it. This one is no exception. I hope I captured a fraction of the flavor (sorry) of Offutt’s full essay, which appears in The Oxford American.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s conversation with Jonathan Franzen about his forthcoming novel, The Sound of Things Falling, is only available in the galley, but it’s a fascinating prelude to an excellent book.
My father used to theorize, proudly, that Bowers v. Hardwick was based partly on reasoning from some law review note he wrote. The details are hazy in my memory, and the claim was always speculative, not to mention (characteristically and horrifically) grandiose, but whether or not my father actually helped preside over this era of hatred and bigotry, I’m thrilled it is finally coming to an end.
I sometimes miss writing here, on this website. It seems so old-fashioned to me now, a tiny Internet island disconnected from everything else. I remember first starting to type in this little box, or one very much like it, and the wonder and excitement and anxiety I felt when people responded from their own little boxes and linked to what I’d written. That was eleven years ago. Eleven years!
I’m not the sort of person who wishes things had stayed as they were. I like Tumblr and Twitter, etc., etc., and I’m interested to see what comes next. But I do feel a little wistful from time to time for the newness of the experience of typing some stream-of-consciousness thing like this — which is not at all what I was expecting to write when I opened up WordPress — and setting it loose into the world.
Now I’m putting that energy into my book, which feels good and right, but I wanted to say hello to any longtime readers who might be passing through. So, hello out there! Isn’t this blogging thing crazy?
Right now, apart from my novel, I’m working on a dream of an assignment for another of my favorite magazines. I’m so excited, I keep wondering if I made this up. But I have a contract, so if all goes well, you can read it there eventually.
Finally, I need to thank the illustrious Bud Parr of Sonnet Media, who quickly redid my site and got it back online the last time it went belly-up. If you’re looking for someone to design and maintain a website for you, you really can’t do better than Bud.
Happy summer, you guys! If you were here, I’d make you a salty dog. We could drink them on the terrace with all my herbs and flowers, and my lemon tree, which survived the winter indoors, but we’d have to do it really quickly. It’s getting ready to storm.
Putting together packages for Quarterly Co. has been a lot of fun and a lot of work. I’m ironing out the details for for my very last one right now.
The most recent shipment included Colson Whitehead’s Colossus of New York, art from Molly Crabapple, a short story from Roxane Gay, (a link to) Patty Griffin’s “Florida,” and a letter. The subject was places. Muriel Spark, Roland Barthes, Denise Levertov, Bill Hickok, and Breaking Bad made appearances in previous packages, which were about work and grief, but not the combination thereof.
I’m also excited to be contributing to the Rumpus’ Letters in the Mail. My dispatch goes out in June. Subscriptions are $5 monthly, if you’d like something fun to keep the bills company in your mailbox.
For the New York Times Magazine, I wrote about the increasing popularity of traditional Jewish rituals among American evangelical Christians — including, in a small but growing sector, “bar mitzvahs” for their kids. The article, “Oy Vey, Christian Soldiers,” appeared in the March 22 issue, and you can see some photos and videos of these practices in a related post.
For NPR, I review Rachel Kushner’s brilliant lightning bolt of a novel, The Flamethrowers, which straddles two revolutions: the squatter-artist colonization of Manhattan’s SoHo in the 1970s, and the rise of Italy’s radical left during the same period. An excerpt:
Its young artist narrator, Reno, is wistful and brutally candid at once, with a voice like a painting — lush and evocative — but also like a scythe. “Enchantment,” she says, describing her dashed hopes after a one-night stand, “means to want something and also to know, somewhere inside yourself, not an obvious place, that you aren’t going to get it.”
It’s impossible to choose a favorite thing in Jerusalem is so far, but right now I believe it may be the Bulgarian feta with hyssop and sun-dried tomatoes.
The skies at dusk are also spectacular — eerily Biblical, which I guess makes sense. The night before last, Max and I stood looking out at the Wailing Wall as the sun set. Above us roiling tufts of gray clouds swept over a pale but insistently glowing blue canvas. We had just come from the chaos of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where priests of various sects tried to pray more loudly than priests of other sects, pilgrims and holy persons kissed Christ’s grave and pressed foreheads, scarves, and full water bottles against it, and groups of tourists, including a lot of American Methodists from Alabama, milled around.
I’m here for the book fair, where Mark Sarvas, Boaz Cohen, and Naomi Alderman and I spoke yesterday about books, the Internet, and writing and creating art from a place of passion and authenticity.
Mark and I don’t see each other nearly often enough these days, and it’s been wonderful to roam the city and catch up. Boaz is smart and charming; it’s easy to see why his radio show and his blog are beloved here. And I adored Naomi, whose first novel, Disobedience, I praised on this site years ago and whose game-writing I’ve always wanted to know more about. She and I nerdily compared iPad apps and promised to meet up in New York to talk about being ex-
Max and I spent Monday in the Old City, which is so mind-blowing I’ve barely had time to start processing it, and had drinks dinner that night at Mona (yum) with the writer Menachem Kaiser, Israel Museum Director James Snyder, and some other fine people. Yesterday was all about book fair stuff, concluding with drinks at the National Library, and then Max, Mark, and I slipped off to dinner at Eucalyptus.
This morning Max and I head to Bethlehem for a few hours, and then we’ll meet up with Mark at Yad Vashem. Tomorrow we head to the Israel Museum for the new Herod exhibition, and then to the Mount of Olives and Garden of Gethsemane. Early Friday morning — a little after midnight — we head home. So far, thanks to jetlag, I’m averaging three-and-a-half hours’ sleep a night. But with so little time and so much to see, I doubt I’ll get a nap in.
It’s impossible to choose a favorite thing in Jerusalem so far, but right now I believe it may be the Bulgarian feta with hyssop and sun-dried tomatoes that’s laid out every morning with the rest of our hotel’s immense breakfast spread.
The skies at dusk are also spectacular — eerily Biblical, which, I keep remembering, makes sense. The night before last, Max and I stood looking out at the Western Wall as the sun set. Above us roiling tufts of gray clouds swept over a pale but insistently glowing blue. The wall was goldish in the waning light. The men had about three times as much room as the women did to pray.
We had just come from the chaos of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where priests of various sects tried to pray more loudly than priests of other sects. Pilgrims and holy persons kissed Christ’s grave and pressed foreheads, scarves, and water bottles against it. Groups of tourists, including a lot of American Methodists from Alabama, waited to climb a little staircase to the area said to be Calvary. So did we. The only part of that place that particularly touched me was the dark little room (erroneously) said to be where Jesus was held before being sentenced to death.
Mark and I don’t see each other nearly often enough these days, and it’s been great to roam the city and catch up. Boaz is smart and charming; it’s easy to see why his radio show and his blog are beloved here. And I adored Naomi, whose first novel, Disobedience, I praised on this site years ago and whose game-writing I’ve always wanted to know more about. She and I nerdily compared iPad apps and promised to meet up in New York to talk about being refugees from fundamentalism.
Max and I spent Monday in the Old City, and had drinks and dinner that night at Mona (yum) with the writer Menachem Kaiser, Israel Museum Director James Snyder, and some other fine people. Yesterday was all about the book fair, but after drinks at the National Library, Max, Mark, and I slipped off to dinner at Eucalyptus.
This morning Max and I head to Bethlehem for a few hours, and then we’ll meet up with Mark at Yad Vashem. Tonight we dine at Canele. Tomorrow morning we go to the Israel Museum for the new Herod exhibition, and in the afternoon to the Mount of Olives and Garden of Gethsemane. Early Friday morning — a little after midnight — we head home. So far, thanks to my body’s time zone confusion, I’m averaging three-and-a-half hours’ sleep a night. I’d really like to get a nap in; for now I have jetlag limericks from Facebook friends.
Max took this photo, looking east from the Tower of David Museum, on Monday afternoon.
I wrote about T.D. Allman’s Finding Florida, a history of the state, and a history of the state’s fake history of itself, for the latest Bookforum. An excerpt:
“Nude face-eating cannibal?” Carl Hiassen wrote last year, when the infamous video surfaced. “Must be Miami.”
It sounds like a joke, but throw in the overpass, homeless victim, and fundamentalist drug-addict murderer, and there really are no other contenders. At least the rest of the world has some inkling of this now. As Hiassen says, explaining the Sunshine State’s endlessly inventive dysfunction has gotten easier since the 2000 presidential election. But even natives may be surprised, reading T.D. Allman’s tremendous 500-year history, Finding Florida, to learn just how much of the insanity is nothing new under the sun.
Almost a century and a quarter before Bush v. Gore, the outcome of the 1876 presidential election hinged on a Florida recount…
I’ve updated the events page to include upcoming appearances at the Pratt Writers’ Forum, Jerusalem International Book Fair, and 2013 AWP Conference, and a reading from the anthology What My Mother Gave Me, at Greenlight Books.
My contribution to The Awl’s Year in Advice series includes many tips from Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington, most notably how to shake off (and not to be) a pisseur de copie. A selection:
His writings, she says, “writhed and ached with twists and turns and tergiversations, inept words, fanciful repetitions, far-fetched verbosity and long, Latin-based words. … Hector Bartlett, it seemed to me, vomited literary matter, he urinated and sweated, he excreted it.” “Pisseur de copie,” she hisses at him one morning in the park where he faux-casually lies in wait for her.
“‘Won’t you call me Hector,’” he says, after pretending not to hear and cajoling her for a while, when she dismisses him with a “Mr. Bartlett.”
“‘No,’” she says, “‘I call you Pisseur de copie,” and takes her leave. And though it costs her two jobs, she insists on continuing to call him this, not only to Hector himself but to everyone else, just about every time his name is mentioned. It’s almost involuntary, she says, “like preaching the gospel.”
I can’t decide whether it’s more narcissistic or more fair-mindedly self-critical to compare oneself to cretinous novel characters, but I do it all the time, and the negative example of Hector Bartlett is something I increasingly reflect on now when I’m thinking of posting my opinion on some subject or considering whether to take an assignment. I think: Is this something I really care about? Am I actually informed about this, or do I have enough time and interest to become genuinely informed about it? Do I have, if not yet a clear picture of exactly what I want to say, a conviction that I have something to say? I’ve used roughly the same metrics in the past, but they’re stricter now. While I adore and have benefitted greatly from being alive in a time when anything I want to say can be published online immediately, the instant gratification machine that is the Internet also has a high potential to encourage indiscriminate urination of prose. Also, life is short, I am still not finished with my book, and there is more than enough tergiversating to go around.
At the New York Times Magazine, I wonder whether Tom Stoppard sided with Graham Greene or Anthony Burgess in adapting Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End. And why we in the U.S. have to wait so long to find out.
“The Catholic Church was derived from three sources. Its sacred history was Jewish, its theology was Greek, its government and canon law were, at least indirectly, Roman… In Catholic doctrine, divine revelation did not end with the scriptures, but continued from age to age through the medium of the Church, to which, therefore, it was the duty of the individual to submit his private opinions. Protestants, on the contrary, rejected the Church as a vehicle of revelation; truth was to be sought only in the Bible, which each man could interpret for himself. If men differed in their interpretation, there was no divinely appointed authority to decide the dispute. In practice, the State claimed the right that had formerly belonged to the Church, but this was a usurpation. In Protestant theory, there should be no earthly intermediary between the soul and God.
The effects of this change were momentous. Truth was no longer to be ascertained by consulting authority, but by inward meditation. There was a tendency, quickly developed, toward anarchism in politics, and, in religion, toward mysticism, which had always fitted with difficulty into the framework of Catholic orthodoxy. There came to be not one Protestantism, but a multitude of sects; not one philosophy opposed to scholasticism, but as many as there were philosophers; not, as in the thirteenth century, one Emperor opposed to the Pope, but a large number of heretical kings. The result, as thought in literature, was a continually deepening subjectivism, operating at first as a wholesome liberation from spiritual slavery, but advancing steadily toward a personal isolation inimical to social sanity.
Modern philosophy begins with Descartes, whose fundamental certainty is the existence of himself and his thoughts, from which the external world is to be inferred. This was only the first stage in a development, through Berkeley and Kant, to Fichte, for whom everything is only an emanation of the ego. This was insanity, and, from this extreme, philosophy has been attempting, ever since, to escape into the world of everyday common sense.”
It’s hard to think of anyone who writes about drinking with more authority, finesse, and psychological sensitivity than the late Kingsley Amis, who could, no surprise, really put it away.
His first editor, Hilary Rubenstein, found it implausible that the protagonist of Lucky Jim could drink ten pints of beer at the pub in a single evening, but that, as John Banville observes in a new introduction to Amis’ The Old Devils, “was before he had met the author in person.”
In his fiction, Amis’ best-known drinking passage is probably this one, from Lucky Jim, which came first on the Guardian’s list of “the ten best fictional hangovers“: “Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way… He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning… His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.”
If Everyday Drinking makes even the downsides of dipsomania charming, though, and Lucky Jim refracts them through the romantic lens of youth, The Old Devils depicts in terrible, intimate detail the indignities of that way of life, with special attention to the poisonous mornings-after. The book centers on a group of sixty-somethings in small-town Wales who seek to alleviate the tedium of their days and their marriages by consuming copious amounts of liquor (the men) or wine (the women), and who pay dearly in the cold, nauseous light of dawn. It’s hard to think of many literary passages that are a greater deterrent to tying that last one on than the descriptions in this book of elderly drunks struggling to crawl out of bed.
For one extremely overweight alcoholic, Peter, my favorite character in the book, getting up “had stopped being what you hurried heedlessly through before you did anything of interest and had turned into a major event of the day.” What “really took it out of him was the actual donning of clothes, refined as this had been over the years, and its heaviest item was the opener, putting his socks on. At one time this had come after instead of before putting his underpants on, but he had noticed that that way round he kept tearing them with his toenails.” Over the course of a few excruciating pages, Peter dresses and grooms himself, fighting off “gripping, squeezing” chest pain that induced, as usual, by fear of his wife, Muriel, “simple fear of her tongue.” Amis was sometimes called a show-off, accused of excelling at comedy while failing at empathy, but the Old Devils’ travails are as painfully true as they are funny. Those toenails will haunt me for a long, long time.
Unlike so many other people in our city, Max and I are fine. Heartbroken, but fine. Like everyone else in our situation, I’m looking to volunteer and help out however I can. Taking ideas in the comments. Also tweeting, of course.
I admire Justin Taylor’s short fiction but haven’t read his novel, The Gospel of Anarchy, because the book I’m still working on is also about religion and takes place largely in Gainesville, and though his sounds different and is set quite a few years later I didn’t want to steal anything or to second-guess myself or my work any more than I already, naturally do.
(One of the curses of being such an incredibly slow fiction writer is that talented novelists invariably end up wandering into territory you’ve mentally — and irrationally — cordoned off as your own. When that happens, you just have to keep going. Or so I tell myself.)
Obviously I can’t speak at all to Paul Elie’s criticisms of The Gospel of Anarchy in “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” this weekend. But I am interested to read Taylor’s book and Elie’s own novel whenever I’m fully, finally finished with mine. Meanwhile, I agree with Elie’s contention that “Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time [primarily] as something between a dead language and a hangover.”